RAISING A STEIN TO GERTRUDE: WRITING AGAINST PAIN
Some objects before me on my sick desk
Some objects before me on my sick desk
Single rose in a cup. A rose is a rose is a rose is a rose. Four red roses on a stalk for Alice B Toklas, who didn't like them. Comfort in repetition, habit. Needling friends for life knits everlasting knots. 'The bucket which goes to the well gets by, but the well runs dry.' Who said that? I'm in no fit condition to check my bookshelves. Could it be Paul Celan or, at least, a Celanerie (a bad translation)? Bodies desiccate into clean white bones. (Memory of sacrificing rice rats in a Dundee laboratory, circa 1970. Nothing as beautiful as when flesh and blood has been boiled off. O the wonder of little things. Fresh from the savannahs of South America, when confined in a laboratory they ate their young, aborting my growth rate study. I handed them over to the psychology department, where they grew old and cancerous.)
Père Lachaise. Gertrude and Alice B, still silently squabbling six foot under and neither quite reached five feet in their lives (O the wonder of). The sweet work of nature is that everything returns to the earth. Not to rest in peace but to start again. A rose is a rose is a rose a rose… incredibly shrinking. I make myself all small. 'Je me suis fait tout petit.' A song by Georges Brassens. Love-rat born again as a pathetic little boy.
Two glasses of wine. One for each hand. Blanc and rouge. Wine from two glasses. Ich trink wein aus zwei glasern. Paul Celan again with his bucket, or somebody else's. What if he met Gertrude and Alice B and sat down to a hash sandwich? Does mixing white and red make it blush rosé? I test taste Alice's null hypothesis. Plausibly wrong. I spit it out, and trying to wipe the splatter, jerk my back. Pain. Wine from Two Glasses. The title of my friend Tony Rudolf's Adam lecture (1990). 'The Nazis used language to imprison and kill the mind before disposing of the body.'
I can sometimes jolt myself out of pain by shocking myself with something embarrassing. A rose is a flower in a frilly frock with a bodyguard of thorns to protect its fluffy lingerie. But to no avail. The god Kronos wants to see her naked and in no time at all her blossoms drop off, and she is a rose hip which can be exploited for Vitamin C.
Portrait of Van Gogh by Francis Bacon (1957). 'Violence is a rose', Francis Bacon said to David Sylvester. He must have been sober because he never usually spoke about his work. Despite the trademark distortions, he was a literalist, and said roses are 'tatters of aerial manure… The violence was in their dying… Dying is the whole point of flowers. Silk ones are an abomination'. A memory of his mother's Sunday hat in Kilcullen. Sickly little Francis was allergic to horses. And his father trained thoroughbreds in the Curragh.
Brewsie and Willie by Gertrude Stein (1946). Maybe she was about to say before the needle stuck in Her Master's Voice 'a rose is a rose… and must be allowed to live'. She wasn't much of a one for cut flowers. There were big silences between her and Alice B on the matter. Alice B stood her ground, brandishing a cut-glass vase. The dying flowers came from GI Willie ('Some red roses for a blue lady'). She would, I think, have offered the bouquet to Brewsie's friend, Ernest, a would-be GI whom Alice B called 'the ageing young American'. Nature at work, decomposing.
Photo of Ernest Hemingway holding up a flying fish. In her late fifties Gertrude Stein was more than half in love with Hem, and it wasn't with his female side. She told Alice B and his wife to talk amongst themselves, while the men got on with serious matters. Gertrude was a blue dominant, and Ernest a recessive pink… I'm merciless. Pain is no excuse. Poor Hemingway knew enough of pain in his life, and it knew him unto death. 'Let's go and have a drink. But they couldn't get a drink where they were. So they didn't go and get a drink. They had a drink where they were.' 'And it's only half past ten', said Alice B. 'Time enough', said Willie. Why people like one another is a mystery to me.
Foreground of Gardens on Via Fondazza by Giorgio Morandi (1941). Questions to ask. Did Alice B show Gertrude Stein Morandi's cut flowers before she died (1946)? Did Francis Bacon know them? The most beautiful of decompositions. So-called natura morta, but their fading lingers on indefinitely. Afterlives that are never quite still. Or his distempered bottles gathering dust (Hemingway would have broken them just by looking). In 1997 I visited Morandi's house in Bologna in the autumn, a museum of objectified nature and naturalised objects. Sheer, sere specimens of decay loved to death. Seen from the window, the gardens beyond looked like a model cemetery, bourgeois-maintained by constant clipping and pollarding. Undergrown.
Morandi's home had a ha-ha - a ditch in the basement with a parapet to keep out the wild life. The neighbouring houses were spectres, stone ghosts, looking, or rather not-looking, into Morandi's forbidding interiors. He never ventured out to paint. A study from his window of exterior darkness sufficed to inspire him, or maybe it was the darkness lurking within him. He knew his limits, and they, no doubt, knew him. His landscapes are inscapes. The view of his neighbours' gardens is of himself. He needed to look out to look in.
It could be said Morandi was a passive fascist, allowing things to die before his eyes. He did not protest against Mussolini, much. One mustn't be too harsh. Gertrude Stein was pro-Vichy until she saw Alice B's long face, home from the market. The Occupation had reduced the peasants to black turnips. The war had nothing to do with art for either Morandi or Stein. Unlike Hemingway, who played his part in the liberation of Paris. Voilà, there he is, a grinning Papa on top of an open lorry. 'Merci, Monsieur Victor, vous avez un cœur d'or' was the song at the time. The fighting is over. No more bombings and gas chambers. 'Let's go and get a drink.' He was at home with parades and death. One of nature's fascists? He didn't like himself.
David Sylvester, Portrait in Progess by Giacometti (1960). The seated pose is the same as Velasquez's Pope Innocent X. Hands folded on lap. The eye are empty, or unfinished, but the mouth is working hard. Was Francis Bacon merely teasing Sylvester when he fed him the sub-Baudelairean 'Violence is' line? He fancied himself as the plain man dispensing his wisdom from a paper bag. His 'If God wants to believe in me, He can', puts atheism in its place. Now there he was pontificating to the Pope of art critics, who spoke ex-cathedra to the dealers, nodding along to his la-di-Dadaisms, topping up the glasses. Flowers for Bacon were the lowest form of life (fleurs du mal were more to his palate). So he plucked any old one from the air (or maybe there was a rose on the table) and crumpled its frilly head in his fist. Alternatively he could have divined in the recurrent decimals of Gertrude Stein's rejoinder to Alice B something sub rosa, a ticking bomb capable of doing violence to innocent bystanders.
Looking at Bacon's post-Soutine carcass canvases makes me nervous. I can't just stand back and admire. I smile, weep, dry up with fear and lose myself in a world I don't want to be in. His brush is the Queen's in Alice in Wonderland, which painted white roses red. He wants you to bow to his technical contortions, but not to kiss his hand. Bacon finds the pain in painting, at least for others, and is at his screaming best when laying the paint on thick, blood splattering The Red Pope (a study of Velasquez's Innocent X which, though the eyes are open, weirdly resembles Giacometti's Sylvester, or is it the other way round?). Your senses are sharpened to face a world that brutalises the beautiful. There is a thrill of complicity in the acceptance of how awful we humans are.
Sparrows on the electric wire outside my window. Five of them. Now one has flown away. 'Do not ask why pain, only what to do with it', says Eugene Heimler, who knew pain in Hitler's camps and wanted to make the best of it, rather than understand it. In extremis the consolation of philosophy is to function. Ignorance is bliss. The problem of pain is dealt with by similar pragmaticism at medical college. Not understood, but something has to be done about it. It's a symptom. Not fatal in itself, but the fear it induces can be. Go and see your doctor, who treats it as a disease as it's better not to know what's killing you. So you become a voodoo pincushion of pain controlants, often as damaging as the underlying cause.
At the Vestry Door by KE Jansson (1874). A disheveled parson looks into his church at a chandelier above a plump worshiper, and can't believe in the light. He is the personification of masochism, caught in the moment before returning to finish his sermon. Spare me the de Sade left-handed management of pain by acting it out. You anticipate being jumped by it through inflicting it on yourself. Live pain to the full, pain for pain's sake, pure pain, pain without end, amen. Or the love and death scenario that Hemingway fell for, and lends itself to popular art forms. I once saw a Carmen with the set a wrecked car-dump. Bizet, Bizet is an annoying wasp. You kill it by letting yourself get stung...
In Huston's Wise Blood (1979) Brad Dourif, the traveling preacher of the Church of Christ Without Christ, to appease the pain of sin, cuts bits off himself, an arm and a leg, until what's left of him can't do any further spiritual damage. But pain, nature's joker, does not have a number of its own, though it has yours. Even a throbbing human stump can be possessed by its two-backed beast, and experience the extreme pleasure of the damned, the agony prolonged, a slow motion plunge into being and nothingness. Pain is not selfish, and spreads its influence beyond the target sufferer. The succubus siphons off the excess, and it's bottled for others to drink… Where is the pain and who does it belong to? Referred pain keeps you guessing until you run out of guesses. And thus the whip of pain tops the earth into a spin, and there is no stopping it…
A Glass of Water and a Rose on a Silver Plate by Zurbaran (1630). I drink the water, put the rose in my buttonhole and take my blackthorn stick to walk pain off.