The comfort of dogs

Wright of Derby, Joseph, 1734-1797; Maria, from SterneHeartbroken Maria, with her beloved dog, Sylvio, from Sterne’s A Sentimental Journey (1768) by the great Joseph Wright of Derby.
Ferens Art Gallery. Image source: All Things Georgian an essential online guide to the society and culture of the British 18th century.

“Her goat had been as faithless as her lover; and she had got a little dog in lieu of him, which she had kept tied by a string to her girdle: as I looked at her dog, she drew him towards her with the string.—“Thou shalt not leave me, Sylvio,” said she. I look’d in Maria’s eyes and saw she was thinking more of her father than of her lover, or her little goat; for, as she utter’d them, the tears trickled down her cheeks.” From ‘Maria’, in A Sentimental Journey Through France and Italy by Laurence Sterne (1768)

Maria is another casualty in the line of emotionally abandoned girls, like Ophelia, driven out of her mind by grief from a lover’s desertion and a father’s death, and Marianne Dashwood, whose excess of 18th century sensibility is the same as a major depressive disorder today, and real-life sisters, Sally and Maria Siddons.

Seasonal affective disorder

toohappytimevanda

“MAY YOU HAVE A QUITE TOO HAPPY TIME”
Greeting card designed by Albert Ludovici, 1882 © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

It’s not true that what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger.

merrychristmasvanda

Lithograph print for an English greeting card, circa 1865 – 85 © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

It just kills you more slowly.

Travellers: a short story reblogged

Caspar_David_Friedrich_023Caspar David Friedrich, Kreidefelsen auf Rügen, Chalk Cliffs on Rügen c. 1818. Oskar Reinhart Collection, Winterthur. Image: WGA

Last February, we visited the island of Ruegen on the morning after a great storm. The usually calm Baltic had raged for a day and a night, trees were torn out of the cliffs, and firefighters in the state of Mecklenburg Vorpommern had been called out two hundred times.

Next morning, the coast looked pure and innocent, the sand beaches, white rock, and grey sea as unruffled as two hundred years ago when Friedrich had painted his view of the chalk cliffs, jagged as canines, snapping at the inverted blue triangle of water, while three deranged travellers tottered, elegantly, on the lips of the maw.

The only signs that violence had been committed were the wounds left in the cliff face, and the broken limbs of trees. The sea whispered indifferently. We took photographs.

One day, a few weeks after our trip, I caught up with myself, nine months into my term, time to have a baby instead of bearing sorrow like a malignant tumour.

You reach a time when you realize you’ve stopped falling in the chasm and you should drag yourself up to peer over the edge for everyone else’s sake, if not your own.

Even the dreams have quietened down. There was one last night that took me somewhere new, not into the turbulent darkness of a bottomless well, or boxed up in a suffocating, windowless room, but outside into the sunlight of a boundless landscape.

I was looking for her; I’d lost her. In my dreams I was always losing her. It was my fault. We were supposed to be doing a roleplay job together as simulated patients in a hospital, and she’d gone missing. It was unlike her to miss a job.

She must have left the building to go out for a walk, and I panicked because she was supposed to be under medical supervision, though she did not know, or at least admit to me, how ill she was, and I would have died rather than let her find out.

After a frantic search through dressing rooms rigged in crowded corridors and on staircases blocked by actors putting on their makeup, and, on landings further down, by wounded soldiers being evacuated in the middle of a war. They were real soldiers, not actors, or, if they were, very good actors, because of the pain in their eyes as they shared jokes and smoked their cigarettes.

I ran until I reached the auditorium of a shabby Victorian theatre, dusty and ashen with disuse. It was a cavernous husk, where no human voice would speak again, so I knew she would not be there.

I ran to the first exit I could find, and opened a door expecting to see the concrete paths and dejected trees of the hospital grounds. They weren’t there. The world had shifted on its axis. In front of me was Richmond Park, on a bright summer’s day, packed with people having picnics under a cloudless blue sky.

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Summer disturbed

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The Painter’s Daughters Chasing a Butterfly, one of Gainsborough’s intimate studies of his daughters made in the late 1750s, which took 18th century sensibility forward into a Romantic awareness of individual development through the senses. Image © copyright The National Gallery London

He sees beyond the fragile innocence of two little girls, in the glancing light of a fashionably Rousseauian childhood idyll, to a more profound understanding. He is not just a portraitist exploiting vulnerability and shimmering fabric; he is their father who loves them and worries about them.

He would prefer to think his daughters are happy and well, hale and whole, but he dared to paint the anxiety showing in their faces as they ran, clutching each other’s hands, through the sinister half-darkness of a wood, which is both catalyst and externalization of their unconscious minds.

Happiness as represented by the decoratively winged insect is always out of their reach; they experience, as Keats described, “the feel of not to feel it”.

Love and madness disturb a summer’s day two hundred and fifty years after two little girls chased a butterfly.

I try to imagine again my first happy impression of this painting, first seen on visits to the National Gallery, when I was no older than the girls in the picture had been when their father painted them.

I took for granted they were living the ideal childhood of which I could only dream, long before I knew for a fact that both girls suffered from a genetic mental disorder, and grew up into deranged middle-aged women.

I didn’t see the sadness in their eyes, because I didn’t want to see it. The mysterious twilit wood looked enticing, not forboding.

When we look at their father’s painting, in ignorance of biographical details about the girls, shouldn’t our hearts still ache for them, with some knowledge intuitively divined, as Keats put it, “without irritable reaching after fact and reason”?

Or do we always impose our own preconceived ideas on everything we see, until some bossy person lectures us about it?

Let’s not make the mistake of thinking that the girls would have fared better in our time. Nowadays, Mary and Margaret might be taken away from Thomas Gainsborough, who loved them so, and his unstable wife, whom he also loved, to be put into mental hospital or a lifetime of unreliable drug dependency.

gainsborough wife

The painter’s wife, Margaret Gainsborough, by Thomas Gainsborough, c 1779, when she was about fifty years old.
Image © The Samuel Courtauld Trust, The Courtauld Gallery, London

Imagine being both the painter and the parent of those little girls, chasing their butterfly, never being able to catch it.

One person’s wistfulness is another’s indifference. Nothing we see feels the same to the person in the picture. We congratulate ourselves on feeling so deeply about art that we must be good people or, at least, better than we thought we were a moment ago

Good or not, we cannot help the girls in the picture.

We chase the butterfly.

Facing the world (4) through Perdition

“I’m killin’ time, bein’ lazy”
(Listen to Marilyn being irresistibly lazy)

Acedia as a psychological condition was once prevalent among monks, nuns and other people in solitary professions. The creeping spiritual sickness was known as the noonday demon. By the early 20th century, it had spread to the cocktail set.

Acedia can be camp. There’s a manifestation in the film White Mischief (1987) when the jaded socialite Alice de Janzé looks at the sublime beauty of the setting sun and feels nothing: “Oh God, not another f******* beautiful day”.

Orson Welles’ Garbo is so beautiful, so poised, we don’t believe she has real, painful feelings. She comes over as spoilt, vain, and apathetic, not tragically depressed. In her inability to act being herself, she is a grand failure, a camp joke.

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Facing the world (3) through Acedia

 “The blues are brewin” (sung by Billie Holiday)

Acedia is a form of depression that was identified by theologians of the early Christian Church with sloth, a spiritual fatigue caused by too much time to brood and day-dream, especially in monasteries and convents, where self-discipline and self-motivation were essential for mental health.

At least one blogger is feeling the same symptoms today.

In the early 5th century, the ascetic and mystic John Cassian described acedia as “weariness or distress of the heart…akin to dejection”. Some of his suggested cures were manual work, sympathizing and caring for other people with loving kindness, taking plenty of exercise.

Later, in secular society, the same feelings of boredom and hopelessness were caused by the dull repetition of tasks at work or at home, whichever you were chained to, and by excessive pleasures and luxury of choice among the leisured classes.

More recently, acedia has been linked to the rise of consumerism in the 20th century. I’d add the Lottery, and the misuse of the word “aspiration” to dress up acquisitiveness in angel’s clothing. Modern shopping for stuff isn’t quite what the socialist arts leaders had in mind when they called for cultural beauty to be accessible and affordable to all of us.

Acedia is a sickly leveller, affecting rich and poor, the haves and the have-nots.

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Facing the world (2) through Beguiling Hollywood

“I want to be alone; I just want to be alone.”
Line delivered by Greta Garbo in Grand Hotel, 1932

garbo-clarence-s-bull-1929-the-kissPortrait of Greta Garbo in The Kiss, 1929 by the great Hollywood stills photographer Clarence Sinclair Bull.
Image: Beguiling Hollywood © Vickie Lester 2014

Orson Welles spins a tale about two incomparable beauties; Marlene Dietrich and Greta Garbo…truth or fiction? retold in the wittiest, most sophisticated blog in the west – Vickie Lester’s Beguiling Hollywood.

Garbo was sitting on a raised platform in the middle of the living room, so that everybody had to stand and look up at her. I introduced them. I said, “Greta, it’s unbelievable that you two have never met—Greta, Marlene. Marlene, Greta.” Marlene started to gush, which was not like her at all. Looking up at Garbo, she said, “You’re the most beautiful woman I’ve ever seen, it’s such a pleasure to meet you, I’m humble in your presence,” and on and on. Garbo said, “Thank you very much. Next?” And turned away to somebody else. Marlene was crushed.

Read the full, illustrated story on Vickie Lester’s Beguiling Hollywood.

Orson Welles’ mischievous anecdote about a goddess so world-weary she is bored with being worshipped contains an allegory of acedia, the state of mind that drives people to retreat from responsibility to lonely indifference to their existence.

The shadows of facts and guesses about Welles, Marlene and Garbo loom over the tale, along with the suspicion that more than one of them was sending up the others.

Welles and Garbo both suffered from depression which has been diagnosed since as bipolar disorder; Marlene and Garbo are rumoured to have been lovers, many years before the party at which, according to Welles, he introduced them for the first time.

The affair might be a writer’s sexual fantasy turned into lucrative gossip, but it could also be an imagined consummation of an attraction between two powerful, androgynous rivals, an historical fiction with pyschological truth.

None of them corrected the received impressions of their private lives, or revealed their most desperate feelings, when they faced the world. The self needs protecting from exposure to other people if it is to stay true. You don’t know what they will do to it.

Orson Welles deflects all the latent sexual feelings, self-aggrandisement and fears of worthlessness into an amusing piece of apocrypha.

As Vickie Lester succinctly puts it, “truth or fiction?”, meaning, it doesn’t matter, art in the form of a funny story has been born.

Both are true; one reveals the outward parade of facts, the other what was going on inside people’s heads, their thoughts and passions, and secrets.

Myth and history interweave, informing each other, and it’s up to us to treat them as allies, not irreconciliable forces. We can’t understand one if we ignore the other.

It is a universal truth that could not have been illustrated without Vickie Lester, who has published her own beguiling Hollywood murder-mystery, It’s In His Kiss.