Tag Archives: Poetry

Aesthetic Movement: Oriental Lyricism vs Sumptuousness of Renaissance

19 Feb

L’art pour l’art, art for art’s sake; welcome to the world of Aestheticism!

James Abbott McNeill Whistler, Symphony in White, No. 3, 1865-67

“Now at last the spring

draws swiftly to its finish.

How alone I am.”

(Natsume Soseki, Kusamakura)

I bet that hearing the young Chelsea bohemians and aesthetes, such as Whistler and Rossetti, boasting about their art for art’s sake motto, was like a slap in the face to all that Ruskin had achieved in his writings and life long devotion to art. The English aesthetes continued in their paintings what the French poet and a devotee of Beauty, Théophile Gautier started. Art for art’s sake principle claims that the only purpose of art is to create Beauty; art should be its own purpose, and ought to remain detached from society, politics, philosophy or science. Perfection of execution and harmony of colours were seen as important means of achieving the Beauty. In the preface to his novel Mademoiselle de Maupin (1835) Gautier wrote: “Nothing is truly beautiful except that which can serve for nothing; whatever is useful is ugly.” This view of art having merely an aesthetic value clashed with John Ruskin’s opinion that art should convey the moral truths and influence us on a spiritual level.

Representatives of this wave of aestheticism in England, James Abbott McNeill Whistler, Dante Gabriel Rossetti, Albert Moore, Frederic Leighton and Edward Burne-Jones, filled their canvases, in most cases, with beautiful women in sumptuous surroundings, wearing gorgeous clothes and evoking a mood of languor and sweetness smelling of violets and roses. This obsession with Beauty went in two different directions; the first was the Oriental-inspired musings, while the other went into the past and revisited the luxurious settings of Titian and Giorgione’s paintings.

James Abbott McNeill Whistler, Le Princesse du Pays de la Porcelaine, 1863-65

“The temple bell stops –

but the sound keeps coming

out of the flowers.”

(Basho, translated by Robert Bly)

Whistler is the representative of the first path; inspired by both his fellow painter Albert Moore and Japonism or the madness for all things Japanese, Ukiyo-e prints, porcelain and fabrics that ruined the minds of Parisian artists like plague, he created delicate, serene and lyrical paintings bathed in white and lightness. His famous “Symphonies”, the third one you can see above, were admired by his fellow painters such as James Tissot, Alfred Stevens and Edgar Degas, but also highly criticised too. Model for the girl lounging on the couch was Whistler’s mistress, model and muse Joanna Hiffernan who also posed for the Symphonies in White no. 1 and 2.

A painting needn’t always have a lady dressed in a kimono, white clothes or cherry blossom tree in it, for us to say that it was Japanese-inspired, it’s more about following the principles of Ukiyo-e prints and Japanese design by observing their use of perspective, flat portrayal of space, composition and bold outlines. This is also how Edgar Degas explored Japonism, by incorporating its interesting perspectives into his ballerina scenes, unlike Monet who opted for the simpler way: painting his wife in a colourful kimono.

Dante Gabriel Rossetti, Monna Vanna, 1866

Artists who took the second path, Dante Gabriel Rossetti and Edward Burne-Jones, partly continued the Medieval reveries, but were mostly inspired by the luxurious, richly-coloured paintings of Renaissance ladies by Titian, Veronese and dreamy idyllic world of Giorgione. Ever since he painted “Bocca Bacciata” in 1859, Rossetti continually returns to the subject of a beautiful sensual and vain woman-enchantress with bloody lips of a vampire, clad in luxurious fabrics, surrounded with objects of beauty such as fans, jewellery or flowers. Her long and lustrous hair is ready to smother every man who dares to set his eyes upon her, her eyes are cold and large gemstones. “Monna Vanna” is another beautiful example of the rich-coloured dreamy splendour that Rossetti portrays, using different models but painting the same archetypal face with heavy-lidded eyes, strong neck and large lips.

Edward Burne-Jones, Le Chant d Amour (Song of Love), 1869-77

And at springtide, when the apple-blossoms brush the burnished bosom of the dove,
Two young lovers lying in an orchard would have read the story of our love;
Would have read the legend of my passion, known the bitter secret of my heart,
Kissed as we have kissed, but never parted as we two are fated now to part.
(Oscar Wilde, Flower of Love)

Edward Burne-Jones, a young admirer of Rossetti and a follower of Pre-Raphaelite ideas, also paints idealised worlds with much beauty but little content. In those reveries inspired by the Italian High Renaissance, like the “Song of Love” time stands still and figures are sinking deeper and deeper into the sweet languor that arises from imaginary sounds. Warm glowing colours are melting and draperies are heavy, as if carved from stone. Faces are strong and gazes distant. Claustrophobia and stillness almost painful, rapture captured for eternity, the height of ecstasy, the trembling of sighs, the caressing twilight that flickers in the distant sky, cold stone of the castle, eyelids closed by the intoxicating perfume of the tired tulips in the foreground.

No breeze, no movement, no bird is heard, the hand that lightly touches the keys of an instrument produces no sound, the drapery and the fine hair not dancing in the wind but stopped in the movement, the gaze is forever fixated. The figure on the right dressed in red, seems to be whispering Oscar Wilde’s lines “Had my lips been smitten into music by the kisses that but made them bleed” from “Flower of Love”. The painting itself has a mood of a flower which, unable to bloom or wither, chooses to stay crouching for eternity in the painfully agonizing stage of the bud.

Titian, Sacred and Profane Love, 1514

Just by looking at Titian’s “Sacred and Profane Love” and Giorgione’s “Pastoral Concert”, it is easy to see their influence on both Burne-Jones’s “Song of Love” and Rossetti’s “Monna Vanna”. The same sweet languor pervades the air, the background reveals contours of a castle and a yellowish sky, and the draperies are similar as well. In Giorgione’s “Pastoral Concert”, people are enjoying the music and each others company as warmth and indolence hang over them like a bright soft cloud.

Giorgione, Pastoral Concert (Fête champêtre), 1508-09

So, which direction of Aesthetic movement in painting do you prefer; oriental or Renaissance? It is pretty clear that I am all for the serenity of Whistler’s Symphonies in white influenced by Japanese-influence, but both possess their beauty. Whistler’s paintings can sometimes seem distant and cold, and the intensity of Rossetti and Burne-Jones’s colours and details can sometimes be overwhelming.

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Virginia Poe’s Valentine Poem for Edgar Allan Poe

14 Feb

Here is an acrostic poem that Edgar Allan Poe’s darling little wife Virginia wrote to him for Valentine’s Day in 1846. Less than a year later she was dead.

Virginia Poe’s handwritten Valentine poem to her husband Edgar Allan Poe, Feb 14th 1846; what a beautiful handwriting!

Ever with thee I wish to roam —
Dearest my life is thine.
Give me a cottage for my home
And a rich old cypress vine,
Removed from the world with its sin and care
And the tattling of many tongues.
Love alone shall guide us when we are there —
Love shall heal my weakened lungs;
And Oh, the tranquil hours we’ll spend,
Never wishing that others may see!
Perfect ease we’ll enjoy, without thinking to lend
Ourselves to the world and its glee —
Ever peaceful and blissful we’ll be.

Mark Rothko and Langhston Hughes – Subway Face

28 Jan

Today we are going to take a look at one of Mark Rothko’s early works called “Entrance to Subway” which is part of his series about New York City’s subways.

Mark Rothko, Entrance to Subway, 1938

Paintings from Rothko’s subway series don’t really display an outstanding skilfulness, they are not breathtakingly beautiful either, but their mood is striking. Rothko used an everyday urban scene and transformed its simplicity and banality into a psychological portrait of society’s alienation and depersonalisation. The series, painted mainly in the 1930s when Rothko was in his thirties, is filled with thin elongated figures with mask-like faces, tired commuters detached from themselves, their environment and each other; there’s no communication between figures. They seem so mute, apathetic and defeated. One can almost feel the heaviness of silence between them. Instead, they pass the time reading the newspapers or immersed in their own thoughts as they wait for the train, or for Godot? In “Entrance to Subway”, the lost souls of New York City’s wasteland descend into Hades’s underground where tall brown column stretch in a repetitive never-ending row. The urban scenery and the energy of these paintings reminds me of Kirchner’s Berlin street scenes laden with anxiety and frenzy. Still, if Kirchner’s thin figures are about to burst from anxiety and frenzy, then Rothko’s figures are about to melt into a shapeless grey puddle.

Mark Rothko, Subway, 1937

A visual detail to notice here is the dominance of colour over the line. Rothko said that “colors are performers” and indeed, it seems that the figures or the tall columns were made out of single brushstrokes. There is little or no shading and brushstrokes are thick and visible, leaving the edges of colours visible, just as they would be in Rothko’s later works. Although in “Entrance to Subway” the colour palette is rather cheerful with those blues, purples and yellows, in other paintings of the series a murky palette of browns prevails. Rothko had some strong opinions about the importance of colour on a painting. In 1936 he started working on a never finished book which was suppose to explore the similarity between children’s paintings and the art of modern painters which was inspired by primitive art. His thesis was that “the fact that one usually begins with drawing is already academic. We start with color.”

It took a long time and a lot of experimenting and thinking for Rothko to find his own unique artistic path. These paintings are merely the seed of what was to become of his art. As we can see in these early examples of Rothko’s art, it is clear that he always wanted to portray a deeper truth, the tragedy of humanity with spiritual overtones, but he didn’t know quite how to achieve that until he found an artistic path that was entirely his own – colour block painting.

Mark Rothko, Untitled (Woman in Subway Station), 1936

Mark Rothko, untitled, (The Subway), 1937

I feel that there is something so romantic about these ephemeral city experiences. The pointless frenzy over a train that eventually arrives whether you spend time worrying about it or not, the tired faces, the fact that you will probably never see the person that sits opposite you ever again, for better or for worse. Langhston Hughes, a poet of the Harlem-Renaissance took a more cheerful approach to the subject than Rothko and here is his short and beautiful poem called “Subway Face”:

“That I have been looking

For you all my life

Does not matter to you.

You do not know.

 

You never knew.

Nor did I.

Now you take the Harlem train uptown;

I take a local down.”

Emily Dickinson – Amherst Maiden in White

10 Dec

Shy, introverted, eccentric and immensely prolific American poet Emily Dickinson was born on this day in 1830 in Amherst, Massachusetts. Her poetry is perpetually enigmatic and misunderstood; her genius wasn’t recognised in her time and when later eras took interest in her poetry, it only brought sentimental views on her verses, ignoring the rawness and vigour they possess. In her book “Sexual Personae”, Camille Paglia devotes the last chapter to Emily Dickinson and calls her “Madame de Sade from Amherst”. Paglia refers to her poems as prison dreams of a sadomasochistic imaginative mind which imprisoned itself, and she goes deep into her poetry revealing its layers of darkness, morbidity, violence and sexuality, which are all themes one would not immediately connect to a Victorian era spinster. Dickinson possessed a unique imagination, especially for a woman of her time. Still, with her poetic work put aside, Dickinson was an interesting individual: she lived almost as a recluse, developed a penchant for dressing in white, was rarely seen in Amherst, her social life restricted to correspondence thorough letters; when someone paid a visit to her family home, she’d only answer from the other side of the door; she studied botany and kept a detailed herbarium which is still preserved. She often mentioned flowers in her letters and poems, and connected each flower with a certain emotion or an idea. Violet was a flower she particularly cherished; this needn’t be strange for it is a delicate little flower that holds beauty both in its colour and fragrance.

Emily Dickinson, December 1846 or early 1847; This is the only authenticated portrait of Emily Dickinson later than childhood. “Heart, keep very still, or someone will find you out.” (From a letter to Susan Gilbert Dickinson, 5 April 1852)

Since the Amherst Lady in White is celebrating her birthday today from the depth of her tomb, why not read a few of her poems? These are some of my favourites:

They might not need me – yet they might

 They might not need me – yet they might –

I’ll let my Heart be just in sight –

A smile so small as mine might be

Precisely their necessity.

***

VII. With a Flower.

I hide myself within my flower,

That wearing on your breast,

You, unsuspecting, wear me too —

And angels know the rest.

 

I hide myself within my flower,

That, fading from your vase,

You, unsuspecting, feel for me

Almost a loneliness.

A page from Emily Dickinson’s herbarium. You can read about it here: “The photo facsimiles of the herbarium now available to readers at the Houghton Library still present the girl Emily appealingly: the one who misspelled, who arranged pressed flowers in artistic form, who with Wordsworthian tenderness considered nature her friend.”

The Tulip.

SHE slept beneath a tree

        Remembered but by me.

I touched her cradle mute;

She recognized the foot,

Put on her carmine suit, —

        And see!

***

Heart, we will forget him!

Heart, we will forget him!

You and I, tonight!

You may forget the warmth he gave,

I will forget the light.

 

When you have done, pray tell me

That I my thoughts may dim;

Haste! lest while you’re lagging.

I may remember him!

Violets from Emily’s herbarium.

XIX. I noticed people disappeared

I noticed people disappeared,

When but a little child, —

Supposed they visited remote,

Or settled regions wild.

 

Now know I they both visited

And settled regions wild,

But did because they died, — a fact

Withheld the little child!

***

If I may have it, when it’s dead (577)

If I may have it, when it’s dead,

I’ll be contented—so—

If just as soon as Breath is out

It shall belong to me—

 

Until they lock it in the Grave,

‘Tis Bliss I cannot weigh—

For tho’ they lock Thee in the Grave,

Myself—can own the key—

 

Think of it Lover! I and Thee

Permitted—face to face to be—

After a Life—a Death—We’ll say—

For Death was That—

And this—is Thee—

 

I’ll tell Thee All—how Bald it grew—

How Midnight felt, at first—to me—

How all the Clocks stopped in the World—

And Sunshine pinched me—’Twas so cold—

 

Then how the Grief got sleepy—some—

As if my Soul were deaf and dumb—

Just making signs—across—to Thee—

That this way—thou could’st notice me—

 

I’ll tell you how I tried to keep

A smile, to show you, when this Deep

All Waded—We look back for Play,

At those Old Times—in Calvary,

 

Forgive me, if the Grave come slow—

For Coveting to look at Thee—

Forgive me, if to stroke thy frost

Outvisions Paradise!

Paul Gauguin – Nevermore (O Taiti)

25 Nov

In this post we’ll take a look at one of Paul Gauguin’s famous nudes of Tahitian girls and search the deeper meaning of the painting beside the, at first sight obvious, alluring exoticism and eroticism.

Paul Gauguin, Nevermore (O Taïti), 1897

A nude woman is lying on a bed. Just another one of Gauguin’s exotic island girls, you might think, but her face expression and the mystic mood compels you to take another look. The horizontal composition of the painting is subordinated to the voluptuous body of this chocolate-skinned Tahitian girl. All of Gauguin’s island girls have this interesting skin colour: brown accentuated with green and hints of salmon pink. Her black hair is spilt on the bright lemon yellow pillow. She looks bored at first sight, her head is resting on her hand. Her lips are turned upwards, perhaps she is sulking? And how delightfully the outline of her body separates the foreground from the background. Nocturnal, dreamy mood where every colour holds a secret; browns, pale purple, green and blue. Silence of the night. In the background we see two women, a big bird and a series of abstract decorations. Notice the distinct colour palette that Gauguin uses; mostly muted tones with pops of bright colour, usually purple, pinks and aqua blues. The girl you see in the painting is Pahura, Gauguin’s second vahine (Tahitian word for ‘woman’). But why is she so sad?

Let me tell you something about Gauguin’s travels. After living a bourgeois life as a salesman and being married for eleven years to a Danish woman, he felt suffocated by this existence and, at the age of thirty seven, finally decided to devote himself to painting. But soon the escape into the world of art wasn’t enough and he felt a need to physically escape the western world which he deemed as materialistic and decadent. He first sailed to Panama, then to the Caribbean, to a little island called Martinique, then he spent some time with Vincent van Gogh in Arles which ended in the famous ear incident, from then to Brittany, then Paris again, until one day, in 1891, on a suggestion of a fellow painter Emile Bernard, he decided to sail to Tahiti, a French colony which seemed like a paradise in his imagination. In 1893 he returned to France, but in 1895 he visited Tahiti again, this time for good : he died there too. When he returned to Tahiti in 1895, he found his old wife married to a fellow native, and was looking for another wife and he soon found her. Her name was Pahura and she was fifteen years old, although Gauguin himself claimed she was thirteen, perhaps in a desire to spark more outrage. Pahura was his greatest muse and she stayed with him, on and off, for six years. Soon enough Pahura was pregnant and the baby was due around Christmas 1896. A little girl was born, which delighted Gauguin, but sadly she died soon afterwards. Gauguin’s respond to this sad situation was the painting “Nevermore” where we see Pahura in a state of sadness after the loss of her first child, her eyes are soft with sorrow, to quote Leonard Cohen. The title itself is taken from the famous poem “Raven” by Edgar Allan Poe. In the poem, as you all know, a raven visits a sad lover who laments the death of his beloved maiden Lenore. The only word that the Raven ever says is “Nevermore”. And indeed, both the poem and Gauguin’s painting have a nocturnal ambience imbued with feelings of mystery and loss.

John William Waterhouse and John Keats – Isabella and the Pot of Basil

31 Oct

John William Waterhouse’s portrayal of John Keats’s poem “Isabella; or, The Pot of Basil”, is dreamy, which is typical for his oeuvre, and, following the tradition of the Pre-Raphaelites, it is rich in details, but the seemingly innocent scene hides a darker theme. In this painting, Waterhouse beautifully unites the Medieval macabre imagination of Boccaccio with the sensuous imagery created by Keats in his poem.

John William Waterhouse (1849-1917) Isabella and the Pot of Basil, 1907

In a secluded spot of a beautiful garden somewhere in Florence, a damsel known by the name of Isabella is kneeling beside a pot of basil, embracing it with her gentle white arms and “gazing amorously upon it with all her desire”. The air is warm and fragrant, but laced with sadness. The spot seems secretive and the path that leads to it is rarely used. With no living soul around her, she must have whispered the woes of her heart to the greenery around her: the grass, the ivy, the hedge, have all become friends. The fragile red poppy that grew next to her white gown, along with a skull on the pedestal of the basil pot, could be interpreted as signs of the other world. Poppy is a flower connected to dreams, sleep and death. She is dressed in a long white gown that touches the ground with intricate Medieval-style sleeves. Her auburn hair falls on her back as she tilts her head and sighs at the inequity of her destiny. How can a maiden so young and so pretty be so sad?

Ahh, but poor Isabella is ill from sadness. In a feverish state her gaze turned blurry from tears, and yet, with wild perseverance she wraps her weak arms around the pot, pining and weeping, day upon day, night after night. Her heart aches for something she can never have, and not even a thousand tears would bring the dear face of Lorenzo back to life; the anguish that sits on her chest is heavier than a stone, and yet her face shows longing rather than pain, as if her devotion, her pining and daydreaming upon that pot of fragrant basil bring her serenity. For, what else can she do but weep her days away?

John Keats’s narrative poem “Isabella” is adapted from a story in Boccaccio’s Decameron (IV day, 5th story) which tells the tale of Lisabetta and Lorenzo. (A note: Keats changed the setting of the story from Messina to Florence, and the name from Lisbetta to Isabella.) In Decameron, Lisbetta is a fair and well-manered maiden who lives in the town of Messina with her three brothers who want her to marry a rich and respectable man, but Lisbetta falls in love with Lorenzo, the dashing young employee of her brothers. After enjoying the delights of each other’s company, the young lovers are discovered and the brothers decide to take things into their hands. On day they take Lorenzo into the deepest darkest forest and murder him. Lisbetta, not hearing from Lorenzo for so long, grows impatient and worried until one night he appears in her dream and tells her what had happened and where his body lies. After that “she awoke and giving faith to the vision, wept bitterly.” Lisbetta finds his body in the forest, and despite her woes remains cool-headed and knowing that she can’t take the whole body, she cuts his head off and wraps it in a napkin and:

“…returned home, where, shutting herself in her chamber with her lover’s head, she bewept it long and bitterly, insomuch that she bathed it all with her tears, and kissed it a thousand times in every part. Then, taking a great and goodly pot, of those wherein they plant marjoram or sweet basil, she set the head therein, folded in a fair linen cloth, and covered it with earth, in which she planted sundry heads of right fair basil of Salerno; nor did she ever water these with other water than that of her tears or rose or orange-flower water. Moreover she took wont to sit still near the pot and to gaze amorously upon it with all her desire, as upon that which held her Lorenzo hid; and after she had a great while looked thereon, she would bend over it and fall to weeping so sore and so long that her tears bathed all the basil, which, by dint of long and assiduous tending, as well as by reason of the fatness of the earth, proceeding from the rotting head that was therein, waxed passing fair and very sweet of savour.”

To rest your eyes from Waterhouse, here is another version: Arthur Nowell, Isabella and the Pot of Basil, 1904

She sits and weeps over that pot of basil with mad devotion, adoringly wrapping her arms around it, as is she was enchanted or cursed like the Lady of Shalott. It arises suspicion in her brothers and one day they turn out the pot and find a head, not yet rotten, of Lorenzo. In fear that things might get revealed, they move to Naples and Lisbetta is once again separated from her lover, or this time, from his head. It is indeed a pity that they moved Lorenzo’s rotting head because it fertilised the soil in the pot and the basil grew ever so lush and fragrant. Every good gardener knows this is the secret to a healthy plant!

Lisbetta eventually dies from sadness: “The damsel, ceasing never from lamenting and still demanding her pot, died, weeping; and so her ill-fortuned love had end.”

Poor, poor Isabella! Waterhouse must have thought that too, when he chose to portray the scene of a sad tale of love first written by Boccaccio and later sang by Keats whose eloquence and melancholic disposition added the lyrical and sensuous dimension. Who knew better than Keats the ache of wanting so desperately something you cannot have? Did he not yearn for the sweet nectar of life, and was denied to taste the very drink? Having died so young from consumption, did he not feel on his own skin the transience of everything which hurts like knives piercing your chest, and therefore nurtured beauty in his verses. Her is what his beautiful poetic vision tells us of Isabella and Lorenzo falling in love:

“They could not in the self-same mansion dwell

Without some stir of heart, some malady;

They could not sit at meals but feel how well

It soothed each to be the other by;

They could not, sure, beneath the same roof sleep

But to each other dream, and nightly weep.

With every morn their love grew tenderer,

With every eve deeper and tenderer still…”

John William Waterhouse (1849-1917) was not a member of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood but he, like many other artists, accepted their style and subject matter. He too dipped his paint brush into the paint of dreams, and painted scenes from mythology, Medieval romances, love and longing. Pre-Raphaelites drew inspiration from poetry and even though for Rossetti Dante was God, we could rightfully say that John Keats was placed on a pedestal. Out of all English poets of Romanticism, Keats was the most lyrical, the one who emphasised the greatness of beauty. This ideal brought him together with the Pre-Raphaelites. It is very likely that Waterhouse had Keats’s and not Boccaccio’s version of the story in mind when he painted this painting. A tale of sad love was perfect for a Pre-Raphaelite canvas; before Waterhouse, both Rossetti with his infatuations with Dante’s Beatrice and her death, and Millais’ with his paintings such as ‘A Huguenot’ tackled the subject.

Keats’s poem “Isabella” is absolutely beautiful, but these verses are perhaps my favourite and tell us about the growing love between Isabella and Lorenzo:

“Parting they seem’d to tread upon the air,

 Twin roses by the zephyr blown apart

Only to meet again more close, and share      

 The inward fragrance of each other’s heart.

She, to her chamber gone, a ditty fair

 Sang, of delicious love and honey’d dart…”

Keats’s verses and the Pre-Raphaelite canvases both possess sensuality in abundance: Keats’s rich, delicate yet passionate descriptions match perfectly with the vibrantly coloured, richly textured and emotionally charged paintings of the Pre-Raphaelites.

Out of all the stories I’ve read from “Decameron” this one is my favourite because underneath the sad tale of love scenario, which always appeals my romantic whimsy, it has a strong dark and macabre mood. I mean, the girl weeps and adoringly gazes at the pot of basil, knowing that the head of her lover is buried in it. Can you imagine the head which used to belong to a beautiful man she loved slowly rotting in the pot, his hair mingling with the roots of basil… It’s eerie and kind of revolting, and I say this with a creepy smile on my face because it appeals to me at the same time. John Keats, on the other hand, focused on the sensuality of the story and its melancholy, veiling it in beauty: rose petals, zephyrs, soft lips and sad gazes, everything is ripe, warmth, fragrant, in bloom. And this is how he ends the poem:

“And so she pined, and so she died forlorn,

Imploring for her Basil to the last.

No heart was there in Florence but did mourn

In pity of her love, so overcast.

And a sad ditty of this story born

From mouth to mouth through all the country pass’d:

Still is the burthen sung—“O cruelty,

“To steal my Basil-pot away from me!”

So, happy birthday, John Keats!

Book Review: Before Night Falls by Reinaldo Arenas

21 Oct

I just finished reading a fascinating book: Reinaldo Arenas’s beautiful memoir Before Night Falls. Reinaldo Arenas (1943-1990), the self proclaimed “bad poet in love with the moon” (in Spanish: “Mal poeta enamorado de la luna”) was a gay Cuban poet, novelist and playwright who fled to the United States in 1980.

The sea; turquoise blue and whispering thousands of secrets in every wave that rhythmically kisses the soft and golden sand of the beach. Photo found here.

Reinaldo Arenas… When I whisper his name, I hear the murmur of the sea, and that ‘r’ melts on my tongue like pure golden honey… Arenas… And ‘arena’ means ‘sand’ in Spanish.

How did I came to know about Arenas? Well, it all started one warm crimson night in August when I first watched the film Before Night Falls (2000) based on his autobiography, starring Javier Bardem as Reinaldo. The film struck a chord with me; there was something poignant about the talented boy from the provincial area arriving to Havana to study agronomy, the boy who was at the same time naive and enraptured by the new and exciting possibilities that the big city offered. The sea, ahhh, the clear and warm sea in colours of turquoise and teal, the endless sandy beeches, and the vibrant architecture of Havana with colourful but decaying buildings with iron fences and palm trees everywhere…  And I’ll be honest, just gazing at Javier on the screen was nice too! I soon found myself daydreaming of Havana and I couldn’t get Reinaldo Arenas out of my head, so I read some of his poetry. His famous Auto-epitaph, written in New York in 1989, is just mind-blowing:

“A bad poet in love with the moon,

he counted terror as his only fortune :

and it was enough because, being no saint,

he knew that life is risk or abstinence,

that every great ambition is great insanity

and the most sordid horror has its charm.

He lived for life’s sake, which means seeing death

as a daily occurrence on which we wager

a splendid body or our entire lot.

He knew the best things are those we abandon

— precisely because we are leaving.

The everyday becomes hateful,

there s just one place to live – the impossible.

He knew imprisonment offenses

typical of human baseness ;

but was always escorted by a certain stoicism

that helped him walk the tightrope

or enjoy the morning’s glory,

and when he tottered, a window would appear

for him to jump toward infinity.

He wanted no ceremony, speech, mourning or cry,

no sandy mound where his skeleton be laid to rest

(not even after death did he wish to live in peace).

He ordered that his ashes be scattered at sea

where they would be in constant flow.

He hasn’t lost the habit of dreaming :

he hopes some adolescent will plunge into his waters.”

It’s hard to put in words what this poem meant to me in those warm afternoons of August I spent soaking in the golden rays of sun and daydreaming of the tropical sea, and what it still means to me. There is one line that’s particularly poignant to me and I dare say it’s almost burned in my mind: “Sólo hay un lugar para vivir – el imposible.” (There is just one place to live – the impossible.)

This painting by Hermenegildo Anglada Camarasa (1871–1959) has absolutely nothing to do with the book, but if I had to chose one painting to describe my feelings upon reading the book, this would be it: bloom, vibrancy and ecstasy!

It took me only a few pages to realise that the book I am holding in my hands is a very special book, so I read it slowly, savouring every page. Arenas’s writing is so flowing, brutally honest and poetic despite the grittiness of his life. If I had to describe the book in short, I would say: sea, sex, madness for living and writing, and fighting Fidel Castro’s regime. The book starts with memories of his childhood; he was brought up by a single-mother and lived with her large family. He described his mother as a very beautiful and a very lonely woman. Despite their material poverty, he, along with other children, discovered beauty all around them; in the morning fogs, in silent nights in the village, and especially in soil. He writes about an almost primordial connection to the soil; he ate soil as a child, his first crib was a hole in the ground dug by his grandmother, he made mud castles, and in the end the dead body would rot in the soil and become reborn as a flower, a tree or some other plant. Still, the thing that enraptured him the most was the sea which was a constant presence in his life. The sea, with its rhythmic play of waves and its blueness, spoke of freedom. This is what he says about the sea later in the book: “The sea was like a feast and forced us to be happy, even when we did not particularly want to be. Perhaps subconsciously we loved the sea as a way to escape from the land where we were repressed; perhaps in floating on the waves we escaped our cursed insularity.

Winslow Homer – A Garden in Nassau, 1885

Here are some quotes about his childhood fascination with the trees:

“I used to climb trees, and everything seemed much more beautiful from up there. I could embrace the world in completeness and feel a harmony that I could not experience down below.”

“Trees have a secret life that is only revealed to those willing to climb them. To climb a tree is to slowly discover a unique world, rhythmic, magical and harmonious, with its worms, insects, birds, and other living things, all apparently insignificant creatures, telling us their secrets.”

And here is one about his mother; the lingering sadness and disappointment of her life is so poignant:

“Before getting to my mother’s house, I would always think of her on the porch or even on the street, sweeping. She had a light way of sweeping, as if removing the dirt were not as important as moving the broom over the ground. Her way of sweeping was symbolic; so airy, so fragile, with a broom she tried to sweep away all the horrors, all the loneliness, all the misery that had accompanied her all her life…”

Colourful architecture of Havana. Photo found here.

At one point he moved from his little village to the city of Holguín, and in 1963 he won Fidel Castro’s scholarship and moved to Havana to study at the School of Planification. Later he studied literature and philosophy at the Unversidad de La Habana, but left the course without completing a degree. Ever since he first visited Havana, Arenas felt drawn to it, he felt it is the place to be: a big vibrant city where no one knows your name, a place far away from the poverty of the countryside. There he meets many interesting people: bohemians, painters, eccentrics and fellow writers such as Eliseo Diego and Lezama Lima. Arenas’s time spent in the sixties Havana was a vibrant and a happy period of his life, filled with sexual escapades, swimming, spending evenings at the famous cabaret Tropicana. There were three things he enjoyed in the early sixties: his typewriter, countless young men (fulfilling lust was a path to liberty because it was anti-regime), and the full discovery of the sea. Arenas wrote that sitting down and writing was a special experience and that the rhythm of his typing would inspire him and chapters would come like waves of the sea, first strong and wild then silent and slow. Many pages are devoted to descriptions of his writing and wild parties where everyone brought their notebooks, wrote poems or chapters of novels which they would then read to each other and, of course, made love. As Reinaldo said: literature and passion went hand in hand.

But things changed in the late sixties when Reinaldo’s openly gay lifestyle and his writing fell out of favour with the Communist regime. He had to hide his manuscripts and his novels were published abroad with the help of his French friends. In 1974 he was arrested and sent to prison. After he escaped from prison and tried to flee Cuba he was arrested again and sent to the notorious prison called El Morro Castle where he lived in gruesome circumstances. There’s a great scene in the film where in the middle of a dirty prison cell and loud inmates, Reinaldo is shown writing. Nothing could stop him from creating; hunger, imprisonment, illness. Creative expression was everything. While he was in prison he organised French lessons and helped his inmates by writing love letters to their girlfriends or wives. If you’re looking for self-pity, you won’t find it on any page of Before Night Falls.

Peder Severin Krøyer,Summer evening at the South Beach, 1893

Winslow Homer – Sponge Fishermen, Bahamas, 1885

And here is an explanation for the book’s title ‘Before Night Falls’ (original: Antes que anochezca: autobiografía):

‘Being a fugitive living in the woods at the time, I had to write before it got dark. Now darkness was approaching again, only more insidiously. It was the dark night of death. I really had to finish my memoirs before nightfall. I took it as a challenge.’

There is such a romanticism about Reinaldo’s life; the way he was never spiritless despite the hardships, imprisonments and betrayals of people he considered to be friends. It seems like nothing could really get him down, and he never wasted time but wrote, wrote and wrote. He lived for his writing, everything else came second, and despite his relatively short life his oeuvre proves his fruitfulness as an artist. Particularly interesting was to read about the creation of his novel “Farewell to the Sea” (Otra vez el mar). I honestly can’t even remember how many times he wrote that novel but every time the manuscript would get lost, stolen, burnt, you name it. And you know what he did? He started writing it again.

In 1987 Reinaldo was diagnosed with AIDS. On 7th December 1990 he died after an intentional overdose on alcohol and drugs. His decision to end his life instead of passively waiting for death is summed in this quote: “I have always considered it despicable to to grovel for your life as if life were a favor. If you cannot live the way you want, there is no point in living.”

In this photo you can see the man himself.

To close this ode to Reinaldo, here is another interesting thing, an interview from 1983 which you can read here. Here is a fragment from the beginning, the interviewer’s impression of Reinaldo: “Though I was nervous about meeting the great man, one of Cuba’s most admired writers, Arenas immediately put me at ease. “Encantado,” he said, smiling and taking my hand. Forty years old at the time, he had thick, curly black hair and enormous, sad eyes…”

I was especially interested to hear about his writing process and choosing different styles of writing for different scenes:

“If there’s a moment—as in my novel “Farewell to the Sea”—where you want to satirize all the uniforms, swords, and so forth of a dictator, you can do a caricature of the baroque. If you’re describing the characters’ nightmares, that may be the time for surrealism. All of these techniques or styles can come into play as you realize your vision. (…) But there’s a moment for every style. That’s why I advocate an eclectic technique.”

I loved this book because I felt as if I was on a journey with Arenas, through space and time. I loved it because of its wild and sincere yearning to live life to the fullest, to write and create and breathe and be excited by the sight of the sea for the thousandth time. In his last letter, Arenas wrote: “I end my life voluntarily because I cannot continue working … I do not want to convey to you a message of defeat but of continued struggle and of hope. Cuba will be free. I already am.

I see this book as a gift from Reinaldo, it gave me hope and assured me in my opinion that there is nothing more elevating than suffering and struggling for art.