Recently I picked up the Robert Fagles translation of Homer’s two epics of Greek mythoi, The Iliad and The Odyssey. Having read the Butler prose translation and some verse translation back in high school (Fitzgerald myabe?), I knew what to expect as far as content, but Fagles proved a powerfully poetic translation that reminded me of Picasso’s words:
“Art washes away from the soul the dust of everyday life.”
Greco-Roman mythology, in general, aggrandizes life in its pagan, i.e. pre-Christian, purpose of explaining humanity and the world around us. Ancient epic poetry in the vein of Hesiod and Homer is pedantically seeking to convey moral conduct and sound philosophies, while at the same time laying cosmological, philosophical, theological, and ethical foundations. —yes. But aside from the didactic elements of Homer’s epic, the works are largely entertaining. Normal, everyday, banal life is taken and aggrandized to the point that a thrown spear in the midst of battle is not merely a thrown spear—it is a spear with an insatiable thirst for mortal bloodshed—a spear that, though it vibrates in the ground, still lusts for the leg at which it was aimed. What better way to escape normalcy than to read of Olympian gods zipping around and conspiring just as much as the Acheans and Trojans engaged in battle below? A narrative build upon a scale that involves the entire oceanic realm as a god and an absolute ruler of the gods who blasts the heavens and the earth with lighting? And to think, the whole series of events is triggered because of some crankiness and misogyny between Achilles and Agamemnon! We’ve all had bad days, but have thousands of people be slain because of your tantrum?
And so it was, during the course of my devouring the Fagles translation of The Iliad that I began thinking of Picasso’s quote (above). For a while now—and especially because of grad school—I’ve been in the habit of constructing substantive arguments (or, if you rather: defenses and apologias) for the arts. But I feel the need to take a deep breath and remember the crux of the l’art pour l’art movement: art for art’s sake. If for any other reason for its existence, art allows us to rinse the dust from everyday life, be it music, a painting, or a piece of literature.
Accepting this argument, we can then begin to consider the supreme aggrandizement that “powerful” art affords us. What I mean by powerful art is the art that comes out of a need to achieve new heights and culminates in a production of grandeur that is impossible for the audience to deny. To highlight what I mean when I say powerful art, I introduce one example from each of the arts (“the arts” here is, of course, not meant to be definitive): John Milton, Richard Wagner, and Paul Cézanne.
John Milton is best known for his epic poem Paradise Lost. Milton’s entire biography surrounding his poetic life is one imbued with a fascination with power. In some cases it’s quite shocking. For example, his first English work (Milton was fluent in Latin and Greek, and produced many such works early in his life) “The Nativity Ode”: Not only is it significant that Milton associates his first English work with the birth of Christ, Milton also goes so far as to place himself as arriving before the three wise men and delivering a hymn to the baby Jesus. As the French would say: Zut alors! And from there Milton went into a self-prescribed scholarly retirement. He proclaimed that he would produce an epic work far greater than those before him (no easy feat considering those before him include Homer, Virgil, Ovid, Spencer, and Shakespeare). He took a vow of celibacy in exchange for divine power from God Himself. And, lo and behold, he produced Paradise Lost and Paradise Regained, works that were both a retelling of the Pentateuch (first five books of the Bible) and a form of theodicy (justification of God’s actions). (By the way, the juxtaposed picture is an engraving by Gustave Doré, who also produced engravings for Dante’s epic work The Divine Comedy.)
Richard Wagner, the individual, is not someone you want to be acquainted with too closely. Phil Goulding refers to him as a “vile human being.” He was a liar, a cheat, a womanizer, arrogant, a braggadocio—you get the idea! I consider him the Norman Mailer of classical music. He is a wretched individual and you want to despise his work, yet the work’s merits cannot be denied. Like Mailer, who created literary doorstops (long novels) that seemed too long to appreciate but ended up being incredible, Wagner spent much of his effort constructing his magnum opus, “The Ring” cycle. This is an operatic cycle of four parts: Das Rheingold (The Rhine Gold), Die Walküre (The Valkyrie), Siegfried, Götterdämmerung (The Twilight of the Gods). The work is not only grand in scope but it places backbreaking demands on its performers. It is absurd to think it would actually be undertaken by performers or enjoyed by an audience (it is not a work that can be performed in a single evening). But, not only is it still performed and enjoyed today, a special opera house was built just for the work in its day! In fact Wagner himself conceived and advocated an entire special festival (Bayreuth Festival in Bayreuth, Germany) just to showcase his works. And talk about life aggrandized, “The Ring” cycle draws on a range of epics and deals with mythology eschatology! Give the cycle, even its overtures a listen. It doesn’t take a trained ear to experience the genius and the power of this work.
And now on to Paul Cézanne. I posted a picture of Rubens’s “Prometheus Bound” last week that could be considered more relevant to this post due to its content, but stick with me here. Aside from his impressionist works of still life, fruit, landscapes, etc., there are Cézanne’s “bathers.” The above work is “Les Grandes Baigneuses” from 1898-1906, and I want to draw attention not so much to the content but to the actual dimensions of the work. The canvas is something like seven feet tall and over eight feet wide! Not only do these dimensions set it apart from his other, smaller works, but “Large Bathers” (a common moniker) is generally considered Cézanne’s finest work. Interestingly, Charlie Rose references Cézanne’s drive to produce a physically large work during his interviewee David Foster Wallace. Rose is comparing Wallace’s own magnum opus, Infinite Jest (itself an exhaustive/profound whopper of a novel), to Cézanne’s work, asking if Wallace felt he needed to create a grand work not only in depth of thought but in actual size. In his usual self-effacing way, however, DFW manages to slither out of the feminist-inspired arguments that he is, indeed, imposing his phallus on the world. Ironically, both artists, Wallace and Cézanne, seem to be expressing sexual timidity toward women in their works, but I’ll stop there before diving into critical digression, which would negate the whole purpose for starting this post.
These examples highlight life aggrandized in different ways, but the mode is always artistic. The artistic mode is a vast one that doesn’t end within the bounds of any or all of the three examples. I am reminded of Kerouac’s On the Road and Michael Hrebeniak’s book, Action Writing: Jack Kerouac’s Wild Form, wherein Hrebeniak uses “mystic heightening” to describe some of Kerouac’s literary devices. Mystic heightening is Kerouac’s way of aggrandizing life. In On the Road, Kerouac does not merely see the Rockies, he mystically heightens them and sees them through “mighty visitations.” Of course, what is going on here is pathetic fallacy, but it doesn’t end there. And with Kerouac, life (or the life given to personify inanimate objects) is always one extreme or the other: high or low. But there is always a powerful divine pulse that drives his narratives and works to permeate realism with power.
Whether you’re listening to a piece of music, gazing at a painting, or reading a work of literature, remember that the artist used his or her talents to wash the dust of normalcy from themselves. And because of their efforts, we can do the same.