Tuesday, December 7, 2010

Whether carved marble is anything but limestone, after all - Hawthorne and impermanence

For some reason, I have been reading a lot of fiction about painters.  The Marble Faun, Gottfried Keller’s Green Henry (1854), a true “portrait of the artist” novel, Philip Roth’s Everyman (2006), Sadegh Hedayat’s The Blind Owl (1941-2).  Just coincidence – I didn’t even know any but the Keller novel featured painters.  I should have guessed, though, about The Marble Faun, given the self-taught syllabus in art appreciation I was reading in Hawthorne’s notebooks.

Hawthorne had written about artists before.  In my favorite Hawthorne story, “The Artist of the Beautiful” (1844), he makes as clear a statement of his own aesthetic principles as possible for a non-theoretical writer.  The artist in the story spends his life creating an artificial butterfly, which is almost immediately destroyed.  Yet the effort has culminated in something perfectly beautiful, and is therefore deeply meaningful.  I find it hard to think of the Library of America edition of Hawthorne’s Collected Novels, the one I have been reading, as a filmy butterfly.  It’s a substantial object, and it will be in print for, as far as I am concerned, forever.

Hawthorne is less sure about that.  In Rome, surrounded by examples of the creative work of the past three thousand years or so, he could not help thinking about what lasts and what does not; what stays beautiful and what does not.  He is merciless about worn frescoes:

But now, unless one happens to be a painter, these famous works make us miserably desperate.  They are poor, dim ghosts of what, when Giotto or Cimabue first created them, threw a splendor along the stately aisles; so far gone towards nothingness, in our day, that scarcely a hint of design or expression can glimmer through the dusk…  But now that the colors are so wretchedly bedimmed - now that blotches of plastered wall dot the frescos all over, like a mean reality thrusting itself through life's brightest illusions - the next best artist to Cimabue, or Giotto, or Ghirlandaio, or Pinturicchio, will be he that shall reverently cover their ruined masterpieces with white-wash! (The Marble Faun, Ch. 33, 1104)

I want to go on record here to cast my vote against Hawthorne – please do not whitewash Giotto frescoes.  Hawthorne contrasts the frescoes with sculpture, themselves indestructible, their beauty much less so:

In the chill of his [a sculptor’s] disappointment, he suspected that it was a very cold art to which he had devoted himself.  He questioned, at that moment, whether sculpture really ever softens and warms the material which it handles; whether carved marble is anything but limestone, after all; and whether the Apollo Belvedere itself possesses any merit above its physical beauty, or is beyond criticism even in that generally acknowledged excellence.  In flitting glances, heretofore, he had seemed to behold this statue, as something ethereal and godlike, but not now. (Ch. 43, 1178-9)

The jeweler in Hawthorne’s story is not a fiction writer, and his butterflies are not fiction.  Hawthorne’s own ephemeral butterflies are something else, little bursts of beauty or feeling or startlement that he tried to create out of packages of words.  In fiction – poetry, like painting, might be different – these small, powerful effects require a great deal of preparation, this enormous apparatus of plot and character and imagery, all of which risk concealing or even crushing the delicacy of the book.  Hawthorne would have recognized the purpose of many of the great abstract painters, of Kandinsky and Rothko, their desperate attempt to remove everything extraneous from the painting, everything that distracts from the essential meaning. 

Hawthorne reduced to the extent he could – his ghostly, “unrealistic” characters are one way he did it.  I wonder how far he could have gone.  I wonder how far any fiction writer can go.  A bunch of them have spent the past century trying to answer that question, haven’t they?

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