Sunday, June 9, 2013

"I felt a little like a dying clown," or "faith, hope, and love remain"

I read a lot of C.S. Lewis in the years immediately following my conversion to Christianity. My reading of Lewis in those days consisted of what I would call his apologetic works (i.e., Mere Christianity, Miracles, etc.). My first experience with his fiction, which remains my favorite, was Til We Have Faces. I was reminded of this today as I sat in my den facing the fiction section of my personal library, but only after retrieving Milan Kundera's most recent book of essays, Encounter, off the shelf and re-reading the first essay in the book, "The Painter's Brutal Gesture: On Francis Bacon." While Reading Kundera's essay, in which he writes about "the painter's hand" coming "down with a 'brutal gesture' on a body, on a face, 'in hopes of finding in it and behind it, something that is hidden there,'" because Lewis is right next to Kundera in my alphabetical arrangement. Random, I know...

"But what is hidden there," Kundera goes on to ask, "Its 'self'?" He notes that "every portrait ever painted seeks," to some degree or other, "to uncover the subject's 'self.'" According to Kundera, the painter whose work is the subject of this essay, Francis Bacon (1909-1992), lived "in time when the 'self' [had] everywhere begun to take cover."

Francis Bacon, Self-Portrait


Kundera begins his novel Immortality by writing about his main character (the authorial voice in this novel is one of its most interesting aspects) observing a woman in her sixties taking a swimming lesson in a pool. He finds watching her swim mildly amusing. As he is observing her, his attention is diverted and when he resumes watching her, the lesson is finished, she is out of the pool and walking toward the exit. As she passed the lifeguard, who had also been watching her with some amusement, "she turned her head, smiled and waved to him." As soon as the character who was narrating scene saw her gesture, Kundera writes, "I felt a pang in my heart!" Why? "That smile and that gesture belonged to a twenty-year-old girl!" He ultimately described it as "the charm of a gesture drowning in the charmlessness of the body" before observing, "There is a certain part of all of us that lives outside time." Then, returning to the swimmer, he wrote: "The essence of the charm, independent of time, revealed itself for a second in that gesture and dazzled me. I was strangely moved."

Returning to Kundera's essay on Bacon, he insists that "our most commonplace personal experience teaches us (especially if the life behind us is very long) that faces are lamentably alike." Human faces are easily mistaken one for the other and "differ one from the next only by something very tiny, barely perceptible, which mathematically only represents barely a few millimeters." This is what leads him to conclude that the portraits painted by Francis Bacon "are an interrogation on the limits of the self," an exploration into how much distortion a person can undergo and still remain herself. His portraits seek the border beyond which a self ceases to be itself, but not to cross it, which might be to enter into a void.

It seems that during Bacon's career as a painter his art was often compared to the writing of Samuel Beckett, a comparison that Bacon was not too fond of, apparently. Citing an interview the painter gave to Michel Archimbaud in his studio, just prior to his death in 1992, Kundera conveys what Bacon said after rejecting this comparison: "I've always found that Shakespeare expresses more poetically, more accurately, and in a much more powerful way what Beckett and Joyce were trying to say," then following up by saying "I wonder if Beckett's ideas about his art didn't end up by killing his creativity.... There's something too systematic and too intelligent about him, which is perhaps what's always made me uncomfortable" (ellipsis in Kundera's text).

I would just say that if reading Beckett doesn't make you uncomfortable, doesn't unsettle you, then you're not comprehending what it is you are reading. "When one artist talks about another," Kundera insists, "he is always talking (indirectly, in a roundabout way) of himself, and that is what's valuable in his judgment."

Francis Bacon, The Crucifixion, 1933

In the words of The Who's Pete Townsend, "Who are you? I really want to know." As the apostle observed, "At present we see indistinctly, as in a mirror, but then face to face. At present I know partially; then I shall know fully, as I am fully known. So faith, hope, love remain, these three; but the greatest of these is love" (1 Cor. 13:12-13).

All of this at least helps us to begin to see what is the most important take-away from Trinity Sunday, which we observed 2 weeks ago: One person is no person. So, the questions are always, Who am I to you? and Who are you to me? The question, Who am I to myself?, is a dislocated question because it dislocates me. To determine location one always requires at least a point of reference, what in geodesy is called a "datum." It seems to me this is why, say, in the writings of Giussani, to take an example with which I am familiar, he insists on things like learning to look on myself with the same tenderness with which Christ looks on me, something I wrestled with all-night last night, like Jacob with the angel. Like him, I walked away wounded.

It strikes me that to be personally dislocated in the way described above, to have no point of reference apart from myself, is a fairly good definition of hell, which is frightening to an introvert such as myself.

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