Wednesday, June 18, 2008

Solar Music

I knew that the Spanish-Mexican artist Remedios Varo (1908-1963) was one of Leonora Carrington's closest friends, but only today did I realize what a great artist she was. In a bookshop in Mexico City I found a brandnew book (in Spanish) about Varo, beautifully and very richly illustrated and with large essays on her work, influences and so on: Cinco llaves del mundo secreto de Remedios Varo (Artes de México 2008). Leafing through it I fell from one rapture into another: so much beauty, all in one single book...
Here is just one picture from it, Solar Music. I've scanned it from my book, so you'll get a good high-resolution picture if you click on it. If you want to see more of her work, here's a portal.

Sunday, June 8, 2008

Behold, the rivers are running backward...

I'm sitting on the beach of Tulum, Mexico, reading Gore Vidal´s historical novel Julian, and I find it hard to put the book out of my hands. What a story. Vidal describes the life of the emperor Julian, who ruled the Roman empire for a brief period in the later part of the 4th century, and tried to reverse the tide of history by returning from Christianity back to the "pagan" polytheism of Hellenistic culture. It's one of the most fascinating and dramatic life stories known to me, and if it has not been turned into a blockbuster movie yet, the only possible explanation I can think of is that it would raise storms of protest among the Christian right in the U.S.
When he was still a small child, Julian's father had been murdered by his older cousin Constantius, the Emperor of the East. The very Christian Constantius had systematically killed all family members who might threaten his claim to absolute dominion over the empire; and Julian and his half-brother Gallus were spared only because they were too young to pose a threat. But they grew up knowing that the Damocles' sword was always hanging above their head: at any moment, and particularly as the two approached adulthood, the Emperor might decide it would be safer to have them killed after all: for what would be more logical than that Julian would want to take revenge for his father's murder? What probably saved them was the fact that Constantius wife did not get pregnant, and unless she were to produce a heir to the Emperor, Julian and his brother would be the only ones left to continue the bloodline.
Julian and Gallus could not have been more different: Gallus was an empty-headed, cruel brute, hungry only for power, but so handsome and charming that many people were taken in by him. Julian was the opposite: far from handsome, and a typical bookish intellectual, he showed no interest in political power and only wanted to devote his life to philosophy. He was in love with Greek classical and Hellenistic culture, and although nominally raised as a Christian, in his heart he embraced the worship of the "true gods" of paganism. He despised the "Galileans", with their intolerant exclusivism, their cult of dead martyrs, their irrational trinitarian theologies, their heresy-hunting (the Arian and the Athanasian party were fighting like cats and dogs over the question whether Christ was of the same substance as God, or only similar in substance...), and their implacable hate against everyone who did not share the "true faith". Gore Vidal describes beautifully how finally, in secret, Julian was initiated by the theurgist Maximus into the mysteries of Mithras, and later into those of Eleusis as well. This seems to have made an enormous impression on his, and henceforth his true mission was to restore the worship of the "true gods". His was a mystical religion that worshipped God as the one source of light from which all things had emerged and to which all would return. As Maximus tells Julian:

... each god has many aspects and many names, for there is as much variety in heaven as there is among men. Some have asked: did we create these gods or did they create us? That is an old debate. Are we a dream in the mind of deity, or is each of us a separate dreamer, evoking his own reality? Though one may not know for certain, all our senses tell us that a single creation does exist and we are contained by it forever. Now the Christians would impose one final rigid myth on what we know to be various and strange. No not even myth, for the Nazarene existed as flesh while the gods we worship were never men; rather they are qualities and powers become poetry for our instruction. With the worship of the dead Jew, the poetry ceased.

Constantius finally decided to raise the opportunist Gallus to the rank of Caesar (just one step below that of Emperor), but later ended up having him murdered after all, leaving only Julian as a potential competitor. Again and again his life hung by a thread, but Constantius finally decided to make him Caesar and send him on a mission to pacify Gaul. He must have believed that this unworldly philosopher would easily be kept in check by the hardened military commanders with whom he had to work; and if he were killed during the campaign, which was more than likely given the weak state of his armies, well, so much the better. But things turned out quite differently: to the amazement of everybody, including himself, Julian proved to be a brilliant military commander and strategist, and he was so successful in fighting the "barbarians" that his own soldiers finally forced him, literally, to accept the title of Augustus (emperor) and challenge his cousin. Having brought the entire Western part of the empire under his command, he marched East to confront Constantius in battle; but before they could meet, Constantius had died of a fever, leaving Julian as the legitimate Emperor.
During his short reign as Emperor, Julian waged a systematical campaign to restore pagan polytheism. Although the Galileans fully expected him to smother Christian worship in blood, he was surprisingly mild; he declared that although the Galileans had an irrational and inferior religion, they were free to practice it if they liked, as long as they respected the laws of the empire and left other religions and their worshipers alone. In other words: Julian preached religious tolerance, whereas the Galileans saw it as their mission to destroy anything "pagan" and convert all the world to their beliefs.
For a while, it looked like Julian would be successful. He was fully aware that he was in the process of reversing the tide of history: meditating on his reforms, one day he is supposed to have said "behold, the rivers are running backward". But in the end, the reversal proved only an interlude. On a grand military campaign against the Persian empire, one day Julian had to rush from his tent and did not take the time to fix his breastplate properly (according to Vidal's fictional account, he wore no breastplate at all because it was being fixed; the whole thing turned out to be a setup, and he was murdered by one of his own confidants). He was hit by a spear, and died. Legend has it that his last words were "you have won, Galilean..."; undoubtedly he never said this, but it is true that his successor restored Christianity right away, and the rivers started running forward again, finally leading to the suppression of Hellenistic paganism.
Reading about the life of Julian, one if forced to contemplate the mystery of historical contingency, for it is impossible not to ask oneself "what if...?" If Julian had waited a few more seconds to fix his breastplate that morning... or if he had borrowed another one..., or if the spear had missed him..., he could have survived. He might have lived and reigned for decades; and if he had, it is absolutely certain that the very world in which we are living today would look very different. Conceivably, we would now live in a world dominated by "pagan" religion, and Christianity would be merely a chapter in the history books, describing a strange intolerant sect that was surprisingly successful for a time, but did not make it in the end. Or Christianity might have survived, but it would have developed differently, in ways that are now impossible to imagine.
In any case, Julian's life is captivating, and I can only have sympathy for his character and personality. Of course he did make mistakes (for example, towards the very end of his reign his enthusiasm for ritual sacrifices got rather out of hand) but all in all, he was a voice of tolerance and reason in a period ravaged by murder and bloodshed, hate and religious fanaticism.
PS. I wrote that before I had finished the book completely. Generally I still stand by it, and Julian does compare very favourably with contemporary rulers, but if one reads Vidal's final chapters (consisting of Julian's fictional field notes during his fatal campaign to conquer Persia and beyond), the picture changes. Not only do we get a grueling view of what the military realities of the times must have been like, but we also clearly see how Julian began to be corrupted in a rather alarming manner by the absolute power he wielded, how his megalomaniac dream of outdoing Alexander the Great and conquer the whole of Asia got the better of him and undermined his sense of sound judgment (leading to a huge strategic blunder that destroyed the credit he had with his army), and how his sincere faith in the gods degenerated ever more into blind superstition that made him a toy in the hands of Maximus. Most generally, it is quite disturbing how the philosopher did turn into a military commander, and how well that role turned out to fit him. There is no way of telling how his personality would have developed if his military ambitions had been successful, and if he had returned from Asia as the Emperor whose victories proved that the gods protected him. Would it have made him mild, or have turned him into a tyrant? We will never know. What happened was, of course, the opposite: the Christians saw his death as divine punishment, and later generations called him "Julian the Apostate"

Tuesday, June 3, 2008

Messenger to the Deep

Today (June 3) was a day I will never forget. At her home in Mexico City I visited Leonora Carrington (b. 1917), a living legend of surrealism and my favourite 20th-century painter. As if in a dream, I found myself sitting in her kitchen for hours, drinking many cups of black tea without sugar (that´s how she likes it), and marveling that the kind 91-year-old lady across the table was the very same one who had once been Max Ernst´s lover and embodied (much against her liking) the surrealists´ very ideal of the "femme-enfant".
Leonora Carrington was born to wealthy parents in England but proved a born rebel and nonconformist from her early years on. Painting was all she wanted, and when one day she came across a reproduction of Max Ernst´s Deux enfants menaces par un rossignol, this sealed her destiny: it touched her like a lightning-bolt, with a sensation that felt like a burning in her body. Soon after, Ernst himself came to England and Leonora (then nineteen years old) had an opportunity to meet the famous artist. The two fell in love instantly, and ran off to France together, where the brilliant and beautiful Leonora became a kind of muse to the surrealist movement. There are many delightful stories about her indomitable spirit and unconventional behaviour (for example, invited to a constume party, Leonora once decided to impersonate Eve). For an idyllic year or so, Ernst and Carrington lived and worked together in a village in Southern France, but this ended in 1939, when Ernst was arrested because of his German ancestry. Leonora herself had to flee to Spain, where the sorrow and stress proved too much for her: in her Down Below, she describes in chilling detail what happens when one descends into a severe psychosis, and how she spent a period in a Spanish sanatorium for the incurably insane. But she did find her way back to sanity, and eventually emigrated to Mexico, where she married and had children, while continuing to produce a stream of incredibly impressive paintings (for a good sample, see here) that has not fallen dry up to the present day: high up in her atelier, reached by a steep and gothic-looking circular staircase attached to the outside wall, she showed me two canvases on which she is working right now.
Very unfairly, many art historians still seem to perceive Leonora Carrington primarily as "the lover of", instead of recognizing her as an important artist in her own right, and she is not very well known to the broader public. But I consider her one of the greatest painters of the 20th century, and deeply admire her for her free and nonconformist spirit. Moreover, she is the real thing: an authentic Twilight Traveler whose work is all about exploring boundaries. So you can imagine I was somewhat nervous about meeting her in the flesh. I had been told that it was useless to try and make an appointment, and my best bet was just to turn up and hope to be lucky. This proved to be good advice. Since I could not find a doorbell I called her with my cell phone, and she right away agreed to a meeting later the same afternoon. When I arrived, she stood in front of her door talking with workers who (as I found out later) had been assisting her with a sculpture. I had been told that she could be difficult at times, but she flashed a big smile at me and I knew right away that we would be alright. And so we were.
We talked about everything you can imagine, and more: painting and sculpture, hermeticism and alchemy (a major influence on her work), her years with the surrealists and the other great visual artists of her time (but as noted by Marina Warner in an essay on Carrington, she is not given to reminiscing, and does not go into details), her deep horror of Hitler and Nazism (a theme to which she returned again and again), her even deeper love of animals (her favourites are cats, horses, elephants and, interestingly, hyenas), the experience of growing very old and losing one´s memory (but otherwise her mind remains sharp as before), the mystery of death (as to whether there is anything after death, she professes to be agnostic: we simply do not know), and more generally, the mystery of existence itself. As could be expected, given the nature of her work, she struck me as wholly unsentimental: what ultimately matters most in life, she stated with great emphasis at one point in the conversation, is honesty to oneself and others.
What I had already learned from the literature about Leonora Carrington was confirmed in my conversation with her: one will not learn anything from her about the deeper motifs of her work or what its arcane symbolism and hermetic references mean to her. She insists that she does not consciously plan or design her paintings, and there are no hidden messages for the initiated: "it just happens to me", she says, and she has no idea where the content comes from. This is true even of the intriguing titles that she gives to some of her paintings. One of them (a vertical triptych that evokes shamanic associations) is called "Took my way down, like a messenger, to the deep", but here too, Leonora Carrington will not tell you why she painted it or where that title came from. Above the door of her house there used to be a text (I could not find it anymore) put there by an artist friend: "This is the house of the sphinx". It is indeed. But what a lovely sphinx, and what a privilege to have met her!