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The Word is Not Enough

Eduard Jons (3/2012)

Eduard Jons' thoughts on the exhibition "A Romantic View. 19th Century Dutch and Belgian Paintings from the Rademakers Collection".

 

Awakened from a dream of marshmallow skies, Eduard Jons twists and turns, spiralling bed sheets tight about him until he is consumed like a cat in the belly of a snake, sucked towards a deadline. It had been a wretched dream, really. A sickening idyll, an Arcadian dusk, a present pleasure tainted by the impossibility of its realisation. The moon grinned its sickle smile. "Are you awake already?" it seemed to ask.

The previous week, Jons had been to see "A Romantic View" at Kumu Art Museum. It ought to have been a disappointment, and so not wanting to disappoint Jons’s expectations, it was. He had enjoyed the paintings as he enjoyed his own cooking – with deliberate and almost total disregard for taste. The only surprise had been the Biedermeier scenes with their pious gentlemen and women, and red-faced peasants. Over the following days images of repressed domesticity, juxtaposed with the expansive Romantic landscapes, would surface in Jons’s conscious mind, only to sink before he could fix them. But yesterday the images were different. They were no longer from the exhibition. They were instead cinematographic images of a disastrous wedding, and a movie director’s vision of the end of the world.

 

A film frame from Lars von Trier's "Melancholia" (2011).


The last laugh

The press conference for Lars von Trier’s "Melancholia" at the 2011 Cannes film festival, had punctured Jons’s recollection of "A Romantic View". In particular, it was von Trier’s embarrassment with having achieved a German Romantic aesthetic in his film that now held his attention. Von Trier had picked up this philosophical thread and pulled it hard, a little too hard perhaps. Soon, von Trier found himself confessing his sympathies for Hitler in his final moments in the bunker, and asserting his own identity as both Jew (by his apparent father), Nazi, Roman Catholic (by his actual biological father) and atheist. It was all a joke, but like the finest comedy it was uncomfortably close to the truth, and it fell first to the ears of journalists, who are rarely deaf to the sound of a scandal. In an extended interview with the BBC later that year, von Trier remarked that, although he hoped the movie is good, he feared that it might be precisely the kind of thing his mother would have liked. He explained that his mother had chosen a member of a celebrated family of musicians, the Hartmanns, to father her child, in order to ensure its progeny as a great artist.

 

Muddy waters and the unsatisfied "I"

Among the many things the Nazis liked about Romanticism in art was the idea (derived from the late-Romantic Nietzsche) that art could supersede ethics in its role, as if the value of a great music performance could exceed that of any human life. But thinkers such as Novalis and K.W.F. Schlegel, whose ideas were the intellectual core of early German Romanticism in the late-18th and early-19th centuries, had in mind a different role for the arts. The intended role was nothing less than to supersede philosophy, mathematics and the empirical sciences in furthering and representing our experience of the world as beings with the capacity to engage freely with limitless reality via a finite self. In this way, intellectual Romanticism was partly a response to their German Idealist contemporaries such as Fichte who, reinterpreting Kant, had sought to identify the world by reflecting upon the "I" or self in its relation to the "Absolute" of all being, unifying subjective experience with objective knowledge, categorically, systematically and with complete generality. Romantic thinkers, on the other hand, were sceptical of our ability to know reality objectively, to know the self reflectively, and of any attempt to unify our experience and understanding of reality with our experience and understanding of the self. Early Romantic thinkers did not deny the effective role of physics, for example, but it was clear to the Romantics that the proper domain of philosophy and the sciences is limited, and that the language of philosophy and the principles of scientific rationality could neither represent nor provide analyses of the identity of the self and the limitlessness of reality. Of course human experience is not infinite: it is limited by the particularity of the transient self. Categorical knowledge of reality in its totality, or generality, is therefore impossible.

[Eduard Jons feels quite sick. In the corner of the ceiling above, a spider pauses from spinning its web. Seeing the giant white cocoon below, it begins to descend from a silky thread.]

The arts, it seemed, were best placed to explore these ideas and further these grand ambitions, not by representing reality and the self directly, but, according to Schlegel, by alluding to them using their unique potential for wit and allegory. With wit, artists could manufacture from the illimitable something limited, manageable in the finite particularity of our inner world – subjective and providing transient aesthetic experiences that may even be contradictory, just as our particular experiences may contradict one another. With allegory, artists could draw upon the particularity of our lived experience to allude to the illimitable and infinite extent of a world that is, in reality, both personal and impersonal: not by a systematic or predefined tradition of symbolism and allegorical forms, such as classical mythology, but always evading the definite, the traditional, the established – disrupting the canonisation of forms and tropes and, as Nietzsche would later insist, inventing new allegories and metaphors. Hence Romanticism leads to the avant garde. Hence also the peculiar relationship between Wagner’s operas and Romanticism. Although Wagner invented new forms of musical expression and orchestral arrangement, stretching the medium beyond classical constraints as Beethoven had before him, he also drew on a pre-established epic mythology. The story of Tristan and Isolde is almost unthinkable without the music of Wagner, but removed from the constraints of the epic the music is even more suggestive of Romanticism’s ambitions. It is fitting that von Trier used Wagner’s music to accompany images of the planet Melancholia colliding with the Earth: a metaphor for sublime terror of limitless reality and for the human experience of emptiness and despair that is depression.

Like Hegel, Schlegel thought that art and philosophy were essentially historicised practices, their forms and objects transformed radically, in shifting paradigms. Unlike Hegel, Schlegel denied that the progress of the arts would inevitably lead to a final reconciliation with other forms of human inquiry, even if philosophy could be brought to an end. For the Romantics, wit and allegory could never be more than tools for indicating the irony of all human striving: that the ultimate concerns of human existence are unanswerable, that the finite self cannot comprehend infinite reality except by allusion and cannot even apprehend itself except, ironically, by reference to the infinite. This irony provided the Romantic artwork’s audience with their most unmediated experience of the particularity of the self in juxtaposition with the incomprehensible limitlessness, as a peculiar kind of "feeling". Irony is thus the hallmark of Romantic art – the revolutionary progenitor of the avant-garde and of postmodernism, Romanticism’s bastard lovechild. In "Melancholia", the fantastical image of the destruction of the Earth alludes to the impossibility of representing physical and mental annihilation, by juxtaposing typically grand Romantic imagery and music with intimate scenes of marital and domestic strife (a trick von Trier had prepared in his previous movie "Antichrist" (2009)).

[Jons experiences a peculiar feeling of his own. Something like a hangover, he thinks, yet strangely enervating. He rolls over once again, crushing the spider that had landed on his back.]

 

Cornelis Lieste (1817–1861)
Landscape with Crescent Moon
Undated, oil on panel
Jef Rademakers' collection, photo by Bruno Vandermeulen


"Der doppelgänger"

It was Cornelius Lieste’s (1817–1861) "Landscape with a Crescent Moon at a Romantic View" (undated) that had inspired Jons’s marshmallow dream. Lieste’s painting depicts a vast panorama encompassing a moonlit sky, a tranquil sea punctuated by distant fishing boats, a mountainous horizon and rocky foreground with a single tree. It is twilight. The light is soft and the scene is still except for a solitary figure barely visible in the darkness as he makes his way across the foreground. Jons dreamed that the moon was actually a planet, Melancholia, at the apex of its elliptical path across the solar system, the precise moment at which its future course is unknowable – it would either continue safely away or be drawn by gravity into a collision course with Earth. And the figure is Jons himself. He is returning home, out of the frame and into the domain of the viewer, perhaps for the last time. (Jons’s doppelgänger, coming to replace the Jons who dreams him?) Twilight, the hour of the wolf, neither night nor day, obscures the Earth just as the sky takes on its most otherworldly quality. It is a fleeting moment poised between identities, between possible futures.

The solitary figure is our only consolation that this is a scene of lived experience, not an abstract or transcendent universe. It cannot be "I" Eduard Jons inside the frame, can it? Since Jons is dreaming himself from outside the frame. Of course, historically the identity of "I" and experiential self is a problem fraught with philosophical confusion. The Romantics, like Kant and the Idealists, rejected Descartes’s simplistic assertion that the "I" that is engaged in the act of thinking is identical to the "I" that experiences itself as thinking. Among the Idealists, Fichte had already made heavy work of this problem, recognising that it would prove key to resolving philosophical issues concerning the relation between objective reality and subjective experience. Idealists speculated, among other things, about a "not-I" that guarantees the existence of a reality other than the self by opposition to the "I", and (it was hoped) thereby evaded the madness that is solipsism. Sceptical of philosophy’s potential for dealing with such issues, Romantics could instead make use of allegorical devices to allude to the fraught condition of the identity of the self via artworks. The folk tradition of the doppelgänger provided such a device.

[Lately, Jons has been breaking glass in this room again. Falling out of bed, he is reminded of this fact. Fragmented images of his bare body are refracted infinitely across a carpet of bloody shards – a reflection he had tried and failed to annihilate. (There is also a crushed spider among the debris.)]

The quiet night broods over roof, tree and steeple
Within this house dwelt my treasure rare.
‘Tis long since I left the town and its people,
But the house stands still on the self-same square.
Here stands, too, a man; toward heaven he gazes,
And he wrings his hands with wild despair.
I shudder with awe when his face he raises,
For the moonlight shows me mine own self there.
Oh, pale sad creature! My ghost, my double,
Why dost thou ape my passion and tears,
That haunted me here with such cruel trouble,
So many a night in the olden years?

Song XXII of Heinrich Heine’s song cycle, which inspired Franz Schubert’s terrifying orchestration in "Der Doppelgänger" (1828) imagines the narrator’s past self as a ghost, ruefully returning again to the home of a lost lover, a reminder of his personal failure. The mirror-double reaffirms the identity of the self by presenting it as an object outside the subjective experience of selfhood. Often the device is used to display to the subject his or her personal failings by showing an alternative reality in which the hero is more successful, with greater moral integrity and willpower. For example, Dostoyevsky's "The Double" (1846), in which the hero is driven to madness as he is usurped from his social and administrative position by his double, a more charismatic, vigorous self. The experience of being defeated by the person one has failed to become may strike fear in anyone, and engender hatred. In Chuck Palahniuk’s "Fight Club" (1996), the hero is unaware that the double is his double at all, a symbol of his schizophrenia. In Tarkovsky’s "Solaris" (1972), the hero, Kris, is visited by multiple figures of his lover, who had committed suicide, in this case returning him to his perceived failure by projecting him again into the moment of her death, as if by repeatedly revisiting the event he might eventually save her. In this way, Kris is forced to confront himself in his weakest persona, ultimately reconciling himself with his failings and able, in the final scene, to return home and ask forgiveness. Not strictly a double, the android replicant Roy Batty highlights the Romantic undercurrents of "Blade Runner" (1982) when, in the final confrontation with the hero Deckard, the dying Batty recites the poetry of William Blake, questioning Deckard’s own identity by proving the replicant’s own humanity. Thus the Romantic figure of the doppelgänger alludes to the fraught identity of selfhood.

 

"When the kids had killed the man, he had to break up the band."

The double is not only a figure of pessimism about one’s own persona, as alter ego it can also be a figure for optimism. Artists such as David Bowie, a hero for von Trier, choose to inhabit the role of an alternative self in order to realise their creative instincts. Ziggy Stardust is perhaps the most famous example of this phenomenon: an alternative persona who provided Bowie his greatest success, but whose rock and roll suicide was already presaged in the lyrics of Bowie/Stardust’s signature song. Bowie is not acting the role of Ziggy, a fictional construct, but is performing himself as Ziggy, thereby exploring his own identity. Von Trier has cited Bowie as a major influence on this own work, and we see similar identity-play in von Trier’s ironic assertions of Nazi-Jewish identity, and, ironically, in his fondness for John Schlesinger’s film adaptation of Keith Waterhouse’s "Billy Liar" (1959), in which the protagonist, an undertaker’s clerk who has ambitions of becoming a great comic writer, fantasises that he is a celebrated intellectual, a South American dictator, an Olympic athlete, and so on. But now we have strayed far from the doppelgänger phenomenon, since Billy could never have become any of these people. They are nothing more than fantasies and Billy knows it. And so does von Trier, just as he knows he cannot be the woman he aspires to be, no matter how hard he projects her into his films.

[Jons is troubled. Eduard Jons may have been disappointed with "A Romantic View", but still the man beneath the sickle moon continued to haunt his dreams: this figure of Jons – the Jons that is "he himself", the "he" that the "I" Jons fears will walk out of the frame and into the real – is he me?]

Eduard Jons wrote this essay in August 2012 in England.

The editor wishes to apologise for the uncommonly abstruse content of this article. Eduard Jons has not been himself recently.

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