Tuesday, October 9, 2012

The Ages of Man

I always felt that every age has its own atmosphere, its own "air." Correspondingly, there are ages that feel akin, and others that repulse me.

I have no definite sense of Greek antiquity. Mostly, it leaves me cold. It seems mostly cold. Dead, even - in the way the eyes of its sculptures look dead, with the original paint peeled of. Their problems, dilemmas, drives, reasons, values and orientations - it all seems alien. The city-state and its arrangements, the physicality / muscularity of its culture, its images of the "other world" (Hades, the world of shadows, Charon crossing with the boat)... It is not crepuscular, but it is a world of twilight and savagery.

The Roman period inclines even more towards worldly "virtues" - honor and debauchery, war and commerce, and what looks like a boring, bourgeois everyday life.

Skipping abruptly to the end of Renaissance and then to the Enlightenment. Here the centuries start acquiring their own distinct identity (to my affective memory). The 1500s might be a turning point, as after 1600 it all becomes - slowly, surely, unidirectionally - tired and emptied of truth.

The seventeenth century has too many elegant clothes. The English routines of tea and church start being only about tea; a slow, gradual transformation, which achieves its culmination in our day (just visit an Anglican place). The philosophers of the 17th are already too far removed from the essence of things, to be able to say anything worth dusting off. Plastic arts - painting, sculpture - move strongly towards academism; the freshness of the discoveries of the preceding centuries is gone; we have acquired the techniques, we improve on them, but we immerse ourselves only in touches and dabs of paint, here, and there, and here again. The Dutch lose all opening to the cosmos and to the skies, and succumb into domesticity. Interiors, only interiors - little light, not much air, too much furniture.

The eighteenth century goes on in the same manner, just more so. The flame becomes almost extinguished.  We spend our time in this-worldliness, a sophisticated yet utterly vain pastime (all is vanity). And yet this is supposed to be the Enlightenment, but what I see are dimming lights. Or, rather, homes lit by candles, and there is nobody on the streets; everybody is inside, slightly afraid of living out existence. An oppressive existence.

Jan Davidsz De Heem: A Table of Desserts (1640)
The least appealing century, the nineteenth. There is almost nothing to which I can relate, except for the last twenty to twenty-five years - and just because they lead to something else. Everything seems so empty; it passes with a bang, and bangs are gone as fast as all sounds are, even the loud ones. Sounds are not remembered, either - not in the collective memory.

The turn of the century brings again exciting, burning times; for me, Vienna, symbolist poetry; it all becomes modern, but in a conflicted, adult way. Sentences become shorter, paint on the canvas braver, yet differently than before. It starts becoming my/our time.

But before going into the twentieth, let us make that short excursion to the middle ages. Glowing with embers, simple huts of men, really living and really dying. It is as if the following centuries (17th-19th) have accumulated so much civilizational ballast, so much commentary, that lives were lived afterward in what we ourselves made up, and not in the dust and water (and passion) of reality. (Hobbes and Locke and Rousseau and their states of nature, and their inferences from it - what a cosmic-sized yawn!)

Civilization is commentary on existence; given our imaginative capacities, it can walk a close line along reality, or get farther and farther removed from it. Our openness to the truth of what there is (out there and in us) is reflected in how we live our daily life. Do we draw the curtains, do we live inside, or do we step outside, fearful and hopeful at the same time - fears as visceral as the hope for the beatific vision is strong.

The Middle Ages were real, mud as well as stone; Romanesque architecture expresses it best: simple, ascetic, yet more alive than any other style. Of course, early Middle Ages were less exciting - too much darkness, too much awakening, before we dared to grab a hold of the hand that builds, of the thinking mind, before we dared to confront the world and to integrate it into our this-world/ that-world complex.

Renaissance is like a heightened Middle Ages; all those early tendencies, discoveries of the Middle Ages, like young, strong plants, giving their first buds and daring flowers during the Renaissance; still fresh, still alive, still hopeful, not yet fallen into the stuffy domesticity of garden bushes.

Back to the beginning of the twentieth century.. what a century of horror to follow! And yet, very much alive; if not on the surface, then immediately beneath; not in the governing forces, but in the resistance. True life did not happen at the surface; the surface was terrible. Example of touches and swaths of living fire: in France, from Claudel to Bernanos, from Maritain to Frossard; or the underground currents suddenly coming back to the surface as fresh, new sources, in Britain - from Chesterton to Tolkien to Waugh. Also, civilization pure and simple - for example, an urban culture that has shed the sooth and grime of early Industrialization. Jazz!

The short century. It started in 1918, which signaled the end of classical civilization (as embodied in classical Europe) with a grand war of nations and nationalisms, of strong monarchs and personal alliances. Post-1918 we wake up to find that the world has been disenchanted - which, however, does not stop us from making up our own realities as we go (fantasy wars & al.). We continue to lose in the plastic arts and in the world of sounds; by now, there seems to be little left to say, and equally little to de-compose, destruct, smash through; but the middle of the century is just in the middle of it, so still alive with it. A horrific century of oppressive rules that tried to change human nature - in a natural follow-up to the 17th and 18th and their making up of reality as we go, and of the 19th with the freeing of man to become the abject subject of other men and of their ideas. The twentieth century, which started in 1918, ends in 1989, by which time cold wars of many types lose their grounds of existence. Idle men will try to come up with new reasons for new wars, hot or languid.

But the twentieth century is too close for me to be able to form any precise impression of its nature, of its air; it is very much alive, since I was living it.

No clear color, besides confusion, to the still very young twenty-first century.

Willem de Kooning  - Easter Monday (1955–56)

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