For him she got clean. For the baby, when he was tiny, still inside her.
She’d tried before. Her mom went and got her. She tried. Went back. Tried again. Family in pieces around her. Love for that man a big pull, heroin a big pull too. You will lie, cheat and steal for both of them. They were something to hold on to in this world that hates Black women, I guess. Something.
Lucky for all of us, love for her son proved stronger than the others. Love for herself seemed to come with it, and that was beautiful to see.
He was born too early, so early, still in his birth sac, a miracle baby. A tiny, beautiful thing.
For him she stayed clean. Counting day by day as you do. Fighting week by week, month by month. Celebrating every anniversary. She stayed clean.
For him she got it together, got a job.
For him she ate better, celebrated filling out again, getting healthy. Had just gone vegetarian. Celebrated her skin clearing. Wore bright red lipstick and amazing great big green-framed glasses and they looked so damn good on her. She had the most beautiful smile.
Two years her family and friends had her back, with life and hope ahead of her.
All for him.
Now lost. The doctors told her something like stomach flu, sent her home. But night before last she died in hospital. Completely unexpected. Total shock.
Lost to her parents, lost to her son, lost to us.
My heart a little more broken.
This morning I woke up to the news because they couldn’t get hold of me yesterday, and I thought how the US just keeps taking and taking. Just keeps killing its children, young mothers and fathers — grandparents still raise our next generation. I am too far to be any help, I grieve at an immeasurable distance.
This morning too I woke to the news of the attack on London Bridge, the deaths in borough market. Just as two weeks ago I woke to the Manchester bombing. In our world torn apart by war and wracked by addiction I know every morning is this morning for so many. If only our love and solidarity could end this. I know we can only do our best, but I want to end this and I know I am not alone but I cannot see our way.
This biography of Cosima Wagner was very difficult to read on many levels. Mark was being flown to Bayreuth for a workshop and I picked it up as part of my tradition of exploring a place — I confess I was utterly ignorant of Cosima Wagner’s history, or Richard Wagner’s history or the role that this city where they made a home played in the formation of Hitler’s pseudophilosophy, his social circle, and his base of power. Because this family made a home here in Bayreuth at Wahnfried.
That I found most difficult.
But there was also the author Oliver Hilmes… his tone, what he singled out, his commentary were all quite contrary to my own style and feeling. This can hardly be a criticism of course, because we do not all think the same. I thought it best to signal it — and that said, numerous times I think he did actually let the family off the hook for some fairly vile little foibles of theirs.
So from the beginning I felt that while I might perhaps agree broadly that Marie d’Agoult was not the nicest of women or very present for her children, yet my critique of her would be directed differently. I would have made more of her support for women’s equality, I might have mentioned her wider friendships with other women such as Georges Sand, and my sympathy would certainly have been much more engaged. Cosima’s father Franz Liszt did simply take the children away from Marie after Paris followed her mother in rejecting them all from polite society (their ideas of free love being greatly frowned upon then but thank god they fought for them), and he did refuse to let her see them. Hilmes then describes Liszt as under the sway of his new life-long lover and companion Princess Carolyne zu Sayn-Wittgenstein — and that kind of language always worries me. Yet at her direction Liszt’s three children were removed from the home they had made with Lizst’s mother Anna and placed under the care of a horrible governess of the ancien regime, Madame Patersi de Fossombroni and her sister. Here is Cosima standing.
It’s as though 1848 never happened, in this book. I found that curious. But Madame Patersi had been a governess for many princesses of soon-to-be-relegated-to-history principalities, and so I imagine in that house even the gains of the French Revolution were steadfastly ignored.
This book also and again reinforced the realisation that the education of European aristocratic youth consisted (and still consists to some extent) of breaking children into small pieces to rebuild them as heartless, stony-faced, charming individuals who know much about etiquette but have had all feeling for humanity destroyed. How better to maintain power and obscene privilege as though it were right and natural? Reading about such upbringings you are almost sorry for them.
I was sorry for Cosima too, in reading Hans von Bülow’s official request to Liszt for his daughter’s hand in marriage.
It is more than love I feel for her… Rather, the idea of drawing even closer to you, whom I regard as the principal instigator and animator of my present and future existence, sums up all the happiness that I can expect to feel here on earth. In my eyes Cosima Liszt towers over all other women not only because she bears your name but also because she resembles you so much and because so many of her qualities make her a faithful reflection of your own person. (39-40)
The creepiest declaration of love I have ever read, and hardly a solid foundation for a happy marriage, though she did marry him.
She did very much resemble Liszt. He met his end in Beyreuth, in her home. She made it a hard and painful one refusing medical help for him at the end and refusing to allow anyone in to see him as she would be the one to nurse him — and then finding herself too busy to nurse him. Liszt’s pupil watched through the window from the bushes after being expelled from the sickroom, heard his dying groans. Almost you can feel sorry for him. But I get ahead of myself.
There are a number of brilliant quotes here. I thought this one very telling.
‘What she says is almost always intelligent,’ recalled one contemporary, ‘in other words, it is well thought through; but one has the feeling that it has been thought through for a long time in advance, so that the ideas are inflexible and fail to adapt to the actual conversation.’ (49)
Hilmes blames this on the limitations of her otherwise flawless German, but seems more a characteristic of mind perhaps. In her younger years she wrote for a monthly magazine, though always under pseudonyms and this memory not encouraged by family hagiographers — not something for women to do. Her mother had fought long and hard for women’s rights to be authors.
Cosima met Wagner as a child as he was a friend of Liszt — they moved in the same artistic and often radical circles as did Liszt’s student Hans von Bülow. Wagner, however, did not notice her until her marriage brought her within his orbit, and his failing marriage left him without the feminine support he believed he needed. This book fails to mentions Wagner’s time on Dresden’s barricades in 1849, his arrest. I learned that at Wahnfried… a fact hard to guess because some of Wagner’s quotes? Wow.
Mine is a different kind of organism, I have sensitive nerves, I must have beautify. radiance and light. The world owes me a living! I can’t live the miserable life of an organist like your Master Bach! Is it such as outrageous demand to say that I deserve the little bit of luxury that I can bear? I, who can give pleasure to thousands?
— letter to mistress Eliza Wille (65)
He had many many mistresses. And a wife, named Minna. She had a hard time I believe. I know I am doing none of them justice, I apologise.
There are Wagner’s terrible letters to King Ludovic II, who was utterly smitten with him and known to be gay. Every age has its idiom and this may be reflected here, yet if they weren’t lovers this could be worse, as Wagner must have known very well what he was about in using such language to get land, money and influence. This is only a taste.
‘My beloved has often wanted to know more about my political views. I have already divulged certain things. Would my beloved know more?’ … Ludwig begged the ‘light of his life’ to inform him of his own opinion … (70)
Wagner did inform him, in the form of journal entries, and they were distributed as policy documents to Ludwig’s ministers.
I’m not saying that his obsessive fashion sense and his extreme care in interior decoration says anything definitive about the breadth of his sexuality, but, well. He loved pastels, loved to wear silk and satin and velvet (who doesn’t, I know), and here is a description of Wagner’s interior decoration sense from his villa in Munich bestowed upon him by Ludwig:
To the right a door led to the composer’s holy of holies, his ‘satin chamber’. The select few who were permitted to enter this study were generally overwhelmed by what they found here, for the room’s furnishings — entirely Wagner’s own creation — were a riot of light and colour and an orgy of velvet and satin. The walls were lined with yellow satin, while the pink silk curtains in front of the windows bathed the room in a roseate glow. Through the room were draperies, artificial roses and decorations made from precious fabrics such as damask and satin. In the middle of the study was a couch covered with a floral moire fabric. (77)
The von Bülows moved to Munich, just around the corner, in 1864. in April, 1865 Wagner’s first daughter Isolde was born to Cosima. Hilmes notes that it is not certain that von Bülow knew it was Wagner’s child — which could mean Cosima was sleeping with both at the same time! I almost laughed at the shock implied in the sentence discounting such as thing.
It is impossible to laugh, however, at the letter she wrote in November of 1867 to protest Ludwig hiring Paul Heyse as artistic director of his theatre company.
My objections to him are as follows: 1) his Jewish extraction — in this respect I beg our august and dear friend most humbly not to see a harsh prejudice but a profoundly well-justified fear of a race that has caused the Germans much harm … (90)
Meanwhile Wagner was about to cross the line with old Ludwig… you’d have thought that journal escapade would have done it, but no. Or that time he called Ludwig ‘my lad’. But after glorious days in which Wagner organised concerts in the morning then read to Bavaria’s king from his memoirs after which the two of them would head off to sport in the countryside, Wagner went so far as to demand the resignations of the cabinet secretary and the prime minister. And so, Hilmes describes it as involuntary exile.
After much passionate recrimination, Cosima finally obtained a divorce from von Bülow, and married Wagner in 1870. She would dedicate her life in his service, and in service to her son…an oddly dictatorial service to be sure, or to their myth as she interpreted it. How better to summarise the role she saw for her life than this picture?
There is a quote here that is fairly terrifying from her private journals (though she wrote them as testaments to her service, and they were always meant to be read by her children, particularly Siegfried):
Spoke very seriously with the children, wept and prayed with them, brought them to the point of asking me for punishment. (107)
Hilmes ties her strange streak of self-sacrifice to her husband’s myth and her sadomasochism that emerged from her upbringing to her anti-semitism. I find his psychoanalysis a little simple perhaps, but the roots of it are all here. It’s not surprising that Wagner reissued a little pamphlet he had written about the Jews the year of their marriage in 1870 — I haven’t yet read it. I suppose I will. I am curious. But all of it brings on nausea.
In 1871 they moved to Bayreuth, gifted land and money to build a home by Ludwig it was known as Wahnfried (from wahn and fried which mean roughly delusion and freedom), and written upon it Wagner’s motto:
“Hier wo mein Wähnen Frieden fand – Wahnfried – sei dieses Haus von mir benannt.” (“Here where my delusions have found peace, let this place be named Wahnfried.”)
Oh the delusions that this home would help spawn.
Gifted land from the council they built the Festspielhaus, a new opera house for the festival they would begin — Wagner found the town’s incredible baroque opera house too small for the orchestras he needed.
I think for me, one of the most terrible substories in the book is that of Hermann Levi, an enormously gifted conductor (poet, composer) who was court kapellmeister to Ludwig in Munich, and whom Ludwig himself insisted be first conductor for Wagner’s recently finished Parsifal. The book is clear that Wagner objected, on the grounds he was a jew, only to be overruled. Hilmes writes:
Among Wagner’s less attractive qualities was his insistence on repeatedly tormenting his new in-house conductor with anti-Semitic barbs. (145)
He notes Levi tried to break his ties to the Wagners many times. Yet in spite of this, Levi is referred to consistently thereafter as a family friend… it seems to me that whatever this complicated relationship might have been, friendship is not quite the right term for it. His relationship with Cosima far less so, it hurts my soul to read of it.
In 1883 Wagner died while in Vienna. There were scenes of operatic horror as Cosima lay by the side of his decomposing corpse and refused to be removed, kept slipping in to be with his body, cut off all of her hair and sewed it into a pillow to be buried with Wagner. From here she would dedicate her life to his myth, his music, and his festival in Bayreuth. Everything was sacrificed to that cause, but only as she defined it and controlled it. She never released power, and she never forgave those who challenged her. Wahnfried in Bayreuth became a shrine to her dead husband and the family and to Germany as she imagined it. She placed glass over Wagner’s desk to keep it always as he left it, people described the chair that could not be sat in, the many ornaments and the piano that could never be touched. This is what she tried to do on a much grander scale across Germany itself, making of his life, work and thought a kind of museum performed over and over again through the festival, yet at the same a living force in music and in German nationalism. She tried to control it all, keep Wagner at the pinnacle of musical achievement (a strange madness for anyone who loved music) as well as relevance for the ideal of the German people. It is terrifying how effective she was.
I loved this quote about the Beyreuth festival from Brahms’s pupil Elisabeth von Herzogenberg — and of course I had forgotten that Brahms and the Wagnerians were sworn enemies, I like Brahms even more now. But this sums up the feeling that you get from all of this — Cosima’s relentless rule in the house, her children’s desperately unhappy lives in service of her will and Wagner’s myth and the way that any one and everyone was also pulled into that service who could be of any use:
People like that go to Parsifal just as Catholics visit graves on Good Friday, it has become a church service for them. The whole bunch of them are in an unnaturally heightened, hysterically enraptured state like Ribera’s saints, with their eyes raised aloft so that one can see only the whites of them, and under their shirts they all have carefully tended stigmata. I tell you, the whole thing has a really bad smell to it, like a church that has never been aired or like a butcher’s display of meat in summer: a blood-thirstiness and musty smell of incense, a sultry sensuality with terribly serious gestures, a heaviness and a bombast otherwise unprecedented in art weighs down on one, its brooding intensity taking one’s breath away. (194)
This is the antisemitic and German nationalist atmosphere that drew Houston Chamberlain here in quest of one of Wagner’s daughters — he ended up marrying Eva. He is perhaps best known for writing the innocuous sounding Die Grundlagen des neunzehnten Jahrhunderts (The Foundations of the Nineteenth Century), a favourite of Hitler’s. While de Gobineau had been long in favour in Wahnfried circles, Cosima and others felt that Chamberlain had updated these outdated ideas of race with more modern understandings of race for the new century. She was ecstatic at snagging such a mind to be in service to the family’s task and Germany itself. Meanwhile Siegfried had married Winifred, another English woman raised in Germany and friendly to the cause. She described Hitler’s first open visit in 1925. He continued to visit in secret over the next few years while still widely seen as the nasty little man he was, up through his successes in 1933, so as not to compromise the family. Hilmes writes:
Generally Hitler would turn up at Wahnfried after dark, Friedelind Wagner recalling that ‘late as it was, he never failed to come into the nursery and tell us gruesome tales of his adventure. We all sat up among the pillows in the half-light and listened while he made our flesh creep.’ Chamberlain too, could scarcely wait for Hitler’s flying visits: ‘Visits by A.H. highly enjoyable & enthralling, eyes wide open & directed at him.’
Joseph Goebbels came along to visit the great man Chamberlain as well, though he was already very ill. He would die in 1927 — very possibly of late-stage syphilis. One can only hope, it is most unpleasant. Cosima died in 1930, Siegfried followed soon after, Winifred was left to run the festival which she did most ably with great support from Hitler himself until the end of the war.
It is hard to say what I feel finishing this… horror certainly. Amazement at what have always seemed to me to be such different times, such different worlds spanned by Cosima’s life — from the rebellion of Liszt and d’Agoult and the romantic period and 1848 smashed against an ancien regime governess’s rocks through to Wagner and Brahms and then to the rise of Hitler in Germany … it is almost inconceivable really. Yet her life shows how these things tied together, how far Nazi Germany was from being a strange bubble, shows the depths of its roots. She was such a force. I need to read more of Wagner to get a better grip on how much she shaped his legacy, but I’m not sure I have the stomach for it.
A final post on Charles W. Mills’ The Racial Contract (here you can find posts one and two, though I warn you they are hell of long). Because a third strand of my work on race and space is also on violence and hegemony’s uneasy balance between coercion and consent, I was pretty enthusiastic about these sections. Mills doesn’t really use the language of Gramsci, but he explores this area with great insight that parallels one of my favourite thinkers:
In seeking first to establish and later to reproduce itself, the racial state employs the two traditional weapons of coercion: physical violence and ideological conditioning. (83)
You wield these weapons in the context of white supremacy, and of course you get a prominence of domination against nonwhites:
The coercive arms of the state, then–the police, the penal system, the army–need to be seen as in part the enforcers of the Racial Contract, working both to keep the peace and prevent crime among the white citizens, and to maintain the racial order and detect and destroy challenges to it, so that across the white settler states nonwhites are incarcerated at differential rates and for longer terms. (84)
Of course this is part of the consent-building process of whites. Thus (many, but not all) whites (because here is where class really becomes a bitch) see police as their protectors, but for others?
There is a well-known perception in the black community that the police–particularly in the jim crow days of segregation and largely white police forces–were basically an “army of occupation.” (85)
This may have been more prevalent back in the day, but you will hear it plenty now, and you can see it too. But violence never was restricted to the police, and it never occurred to me to trace white mob violence, vigilante violence all the way back this, but it makes sense…
But official state violence is not the only sanction of the Racial Contract. In the Lockean state of nature, in the absence of a constituted juridical and penal authority, natural law permits individuals themselves to punish wrongdoers. (86)
That feels so innately American somehow, this tangled question of justice the subject of 90 percent of the Westerns I’ve ever seen. Maybe deep down they weren’t about cattle rustling at all, but lynching. I loved this sentence:
Patterns of systematic massacres when there have been shakes to the system of white supremacy, causing an ontological shudder, calling forth white terror… (86)
Thinking of the massacres, especially that red summer of 1919 and those pictures of whites smiling over tortured bodies of black men still smoking. Unrecognizable. This terror combined with a sliver of carrot, in a system that
Attempts not just to shape the ‘white citizen’ but also, in James Baldwin’s words, ‘only the Negro they wished to see.” (88)
There is a world of tragedy in the ways that even for nonwhites, this system can be internalised, come to be seen as ‘consensual’.
It is a powerful system of collective consent, one that works to maintain privilege through a particular exercise of morality. Mills describes how
the Racial Contract creates a racialized moral psychology. Whites will then act in racist ways while thinking of themselves as acting morally. In other words, they will experience genuine cognitive difficulties in recognizing certain behaviour patterns as racist… the Racial Contract prescribes, as a condition for membership in the polity, an epistemology of ignorance. (93)
This explains so much, why it just keeps going on and on…This explains, but is miles away from excusing, the absence of rigour in interrogating the dominant social and political systems.
By their failure to denounce the great crimes inseparable from the European conquest, or by the halfheartedness of their condemnation, or by the actual endorsement of it in some cases, most of the leading European ethical theorists reveal their complicity in the Racial Contract. (94)
He also talks about the ways that this continues to deform theory, particularly any with pretence to liberation if they don’t root out these structures from the beginning:
The actual details of the basic values of the particular normative theory (property rights, personhood and respect, welfare) are not important, since all theories can be appropriately adjusted internally to bring about the desired outcome: what is crucial is the theorist’s adherence to the Racial Contract. (96)
Yep. I won’t go into Kant again, but damn. So ultimately this system has shaped the broad white experience in incredibly damaging ways. It has ensured that they:
a) take for granted the appropriateness of concepts legitimizing the racial order, privileging them as the master race… and later the appropriateness of concepts that derace the polity, denying its actual racial structuring.
b) Because of the reciprocally dependent definitions of superior whiteness and inferior nonwhiteness, whites may consciously or unconsciously assess how they’re doing by a scale that depends in part on how nonwhites are doing
c) because the Racial Contract requires the exploitation of nonwhites, it requires in whites the cultivation of patterns of affect and empathy that are only weakly, if at all, influenced by nonwhite suffering. (95)
It is this that I find hardest to understand, the white inability to see anything but thugs when the pictures of children shot by police or vigilantes are set in front of them. I can’t understand their inability to mourn these deaths, demand change. But, like Wendell Berry’s writing I think, this helps explain just how the mind and heart could become so twisted. Mills writes of ‘partitioned moral concern’, and ‘moralities of exclusion’. Segregation lies at the heart of empathy and rationality, not just between homes and lived realities. But to believe yourself moral, while at the same time living a life that is deeply unjust because of its structural foundations, well, that takes some work.
Evasion and self-deception thus become the epistemic norm. (97)
Just to deal with the horrors of conquest, slavery, ongoing massacres, the white life has to be placed higher and the nonwhite life devalued. So what is left as a way forward? First and foremost:
There is a choice for whites — to speak out and to struggle with its terms…
Second, understanding the importance of positionality:
The term “standpoint theory” is now routinely used to signify the notion that in understanding the workings of a system of oppression, a perspective from the bottom up is more likely to be be accurate than one from the top down. What is involved here, then, is a “racial” version … a perspectival cognitive advantage (109)
Third? Embracing this, furthering our understanding of this so that it can be dismantled. To speak in cliche, becoming part of the solution.
There is obviously all the difference in the world between saying the system is basically sound despite some unfortunate racist deviations, and saying that the polity is racially structured, the state white-supremacist, and races themselves significant existents that an adequate political ontology needs to accommodate. So the dispute would be not merely about the facts but about why these facts have gone so long unapprehended and untheorized in white moral/political theory.
By its crucial silence on race and the corresponding capacities of its conventional conceptual array, the raceless social contracts and the raceless world of contemporary moral and political theory render mysterious the actual political issues and concerns that have historically preoccupied a large section of the world’s population. (124)
After that hot gospeller has levelled all but the churched sky,
I wrote the tale by tallow of a city’s death by fire;
Under a candle’s eye, that smoked in tears, I
Wanted to tell, in more than wax, of faiths that were snapped like wire.
All day I walked abroad among the rubbled tales,
Shocked at each wall that stood on the street like a liar;
Loud was the bird-rocked sky, and all the clouds were bales
Torn open by looting, and white, in spite of the fire.
By the smoking sea, where Christ walked, I asked, why
Should a man wax tears, when his wooden world fails?
In town, leaves were paper, but the hills were a flock of faiths;
To a boy who walked all day, each leaf was a green breath
Rebuilding a love I thought was dead as nails,
Blessing the death and the baptism by fire. (6)
The sea waits for him, like Penelope’s spindle,
Ravelling, unravelling its foam
Whose eyes bring the rain from far countries, the salt rain
That hazes horizons and races,
Who, crouched by our beach fires, his face cracked by deserts,
Remembering monarchs ask us for water
Fetched in the fragment of an earthen cruse,
and extinguishes Troy in a hissing of ashes,
In a rising of cloud.
Clouds, vigorous exhalations of wet earth,
In men and in beasts the nostrils exalting in rain scent,
Uncoiling like mist, the wound of the jungle,
We praise those whose back on hillsides buckles on the wind
To sow the grain of Guinea in the mouths of the dead,
Who, hurling their bone-needled nets over the cave mouth,
Harvest ancestral voices from its surf.
Who, lacking knowledge of metals, primarily of gold,
Still gather the coinage of cowries, simple numismatists,
Who kneel in the open sarcophagi of cocoa
To hallow the excrement of our martyrdom and fear,
Whose sweat, touching earth, multiplies in crystals of sugar
Those who conceive the birth of white cities in a raindrop
And the annihilation of races in the prism of the dew. (15-16)
I have been thinking a lot about violence, it is one of the great contradictions of our humanity I think, and Patricia Hill Collins doesn’t shy away. Seems a good subject for the day of Trump’s inauguration, which feels like an act of violence in itself. His comments on (and actions towards) women, on the disabled, on the poor, on people of colour, I can’t even…
Interesting that unpicking the violence of US society makes sense of it all in a way that many liberals haven’t quite grasped I don’t think.
Understanding how an ethos of violence constitutes a deep structural root of U.S. society requires viewing violence as a necessary and ever-present feature of oppression. (189)
Because this society was founded on oppression, violence has been central to this country’s founding through conquest and slavery, as well as being found in the intimate spaces of our relationships. It has always been present, and yet
Given it’s socially constructed nature, surprisingly little attention has been focused on how power relations shape definitions of violence.
Instead there is a focus on its most simple aspect, as seen in the Oxford English Dictionary:
the exercise of physical force so as to inflict injury on, or cause damage to persons or property; action or conduct characterized by this treatment or usage tending to cause bodily injury or forcibly interfering with personal freedom.
Everyday understandings of violence see it as being an intentional act of causing physical pain or injury to another person (189).
But violence works in and through power relations, it is both visceral and structural.
Definitions of violence that take power relations into account refute these formal, abstract definitions. Racism, sexism, class exploitation, heterosexism, age and citizenship status each have distinctive organizational patterns across their domains of power whereby violence takes a specific form. For example, the gendered violence that women encounter takes the form of rape and sexual assault…The violence associated with class exploitation … is more likely to be within public policies that contribute to differential rates of infant mortality or that send poor and working-class kids off to war. (189)
The further I read in ‘The Ethos of Violence’ the more I see the distorted faces and even more distorted words of those who supported Trump’s rise to power:
Violence can be better imagined as a more dynamic concept whose complexity lies not just in its socially embedded nature in contemporary power relations but also in its ability to shape those same power relations. Violence may be such a naturalized or taken-for-granted dimension of U.S. society that it operates as a saturated site of intersectionality. In other words, violence operates as a form of conceptual glue that enables racism, sexism, class exploitation, and heterosexism to function as they do. Thinking about violence within the context of intersecting power relations suggest three distinguishing features of violence that might help us develop a more nuanced and contextualized definition: (1) the power to define violence; (2) the symbiotic relationship between violent acts and speech; and (3) the routine nature of violence. (190)
To look into each of these three definitions:
The power to define violence
First, the interpretation of any given act as “violent” lies not within the act itself but in how powerful groups conceptualize it.(190)
She looks at the Rodney King beating, differences between protection of women as rape victims, Mumia…today we still have the daily murders of Black men, women and children to show just how true this is. It is the power of definition that allows a public discourse and policy regime to continue as if this did not matter. Because they have defined it not to matter.
Social institutions regulate behavior via sanction and censure and also advance interpretive frames for analysing it. These frameworks encourage the public to interpret violence in ways that support the vested interests of more powerful groups. In other words, these frames help the public interpret what often is identical behavior different, depending on who is engaging in it. (191)
The symbiotic relationship between violent acts and speech
The division between speech and actions is also part of the ethos violence.
The use of words to humiliate, threaten, harass, belittle, destroy generally fall outside of the definition of violence and are often protected . Prejudice is not seen as violence. Discrimination is not seen as violence. Representation is not seen as violence.
Trumps’ speech is so vile, yet for those maintaining this separation, it is not seen as violent.
I myself can experience it in no other way, I am bewildered by this disconnect.
Violence as routine
Violence is seen in the daily micro-assaults on the basis of race, racial profiling, how women avoid certain spaces at all times or certain times of day…it is ubiquitous, shaping our lives in myriad, countless ways. And we are so used to it, we don’t see it for what it is.
America has long declared war on the least powerful people within its borders. This state of ‘normalized war’ predicated on the acceptability of violence targeted toward select groups remains unrecognized because it too is routine. (196)
This, all of this. How is it taking us so long to unravel, understand, and demolish violence? Again, this is all about power and intersectionality, how it affects who is heard and who is believed. How it benefits a group of people to shut their ears and eyes to reality and drag a country off down a terrifying road…
Never have I seen so many momento mori, strange and yet not strange in this enormous almost unbelievable place.
These are knights pledged to give their lives willingly in battle — while running hospitals and protecting travellers they also pledged themselves to the fight against the Arabs, the Christian presence in the Holy Land, the stand against the Ottoman Empire. They enriched themselves through piracy against the enemy trading in the rich waters of the Mediterranean.
This is what Christianity — turn the other cheek, love your neighbour as yourself — this is what it really meant to them. It took me a while to find the enemies that they trampled underfoot, but they are hardly forgotten:
The slaves upon which much of their wealth was built — and who built this city — are here as well:
The wealth is staggering. Still, so many ruthless and wealthy men meditating on their own deaths — I suppose it’s not all bad. I confess it gives a sense of awe.
The highlights were Caravaggio, of course. A massive painting, the Beheading of John the Baptist, simple, the great dark spaces of dingy and shadowy wall are even more immense staring at it from afar, framed by gold leaf and pomp. It fits, somehow, while also overshadowing its surroundings. These details of architecture and frame are hardly visible as you look at it, they fade into the background and the skin, the sorrow, stand out above all.
Opposite is St Jerome, elderly, simple. A skull, to match the hundreds of skulls in this place, but an honesty and decay that sits oddly here.
The other wonder that I never knew was here are the choral books, especially those of Grand Master L’Isle Adam. They are wondrous indeed, with miniatures of surpassing beauty (and I promise I am not using that word lightly despite my many enthusiasms), and along the margins the most wonderful grostesques, creatures of bark, creatures with horns and eyes in their stomachs — and there is nothing written of them in the cathedral or postcards for sale. I shall have to hunt for them further. Later. Now, more wandering through the evening and some wine. What I did find, to end:
Paolo Freire refers to Erich Fromm’s The Heart of Man a number of times in Pedagogy of the Oppressed, how could I not read it? He wrote it while teaching at UNAM in Mexico City. I remember too, the only time I have heard a living person refer to him spontaneously it was walking through a London night with my friend Demetrio, as he exhorted me to read him on ethics, on good and evil. Fromm was the favourite philosopher of Demetrio’s grandfather, himself a philosopher in Reggio, who had helped raise him. His grandfather was one of the best men in the world, he said. Given the kind of person Demetrio has turned out to be, he is undoubtedly right.
I read this over the summer…I think my next few posts will either be yay Malta or the oh.my.god kind of struggling to come to terms with the election. This is in the second category, a look at good and evil via Freud and Marx seems appropriate, especially when focused on human liberation in a way that I really wish postcolonial and critical thought had taken up. Rather than Freud via Lacan.
From the preface:
I try to show that love of life, independence, and the overcoming of narcissism form a “syndrome of growth” as against the “syndrome of decay” formed by love of death, incestuous symbiosis, and malignant narcissism. (13)
I: Man — Wolf or Sheep?
That is a question/ statement I have often heard in various forms. We are both, neither, really we can choose to move towards growth or decay, life or death. This is always the great choice we make, the great distinction in our actions and our pathologies. Towards life or towards death… So this does not shy away from any of the darkness inside, rather tries to grapple with its nature, and the springs of violence within us.
II: Forms of Violence
Fromm distinguishes between violences, they sit along a spectrum.
playful violence …. those forms in which violence is exercised in the pursuit of displaying skill, not in the pursuit of destruction, not motivated by hate or destructiveness. (24)
reactive violence … that violence which is employed in the defense of life, freedom, dignity, property — one’s own or that of others. It is rooted in fear, and for this reason it is probably the most frequent form of violence… This type of violence is in service of life, not death; its aim is preservation, not destruction. (25)
frustration, envy and jealousy are aspects of this, and while it can be twisted, ultimately it still is towards life.
revengeful violence … the injury has already been done, and hence the violence has no function of defense (27) … all these forms of violence are still in the service of life realistically, magically, or at least as a the result of damage to or disappointment in life… (30)
On to the violence in service of death….
compensatory violence … violence as a substitute for productive activity occurring in an impotent person. (30) … If, for reason of weakness, anxiety, incompetence, etc., man is not able to act, if he is impotent, he suffers …
how is this overcome? In rather frightening ways:
One way is to submit to and identify with a person or group having power … The other way … is man’s power to destroy. (31)
Reading this is seems so simple, yet terrifying.
To create life requires certain qualities which the impotent person lacks. To destroy life requires only one quality — the use of force. (31)
This is also present in all of us:
Only if one has fully experienced the intensity and frequency of destructive and sadistic violence in individuals and in masses can one understand that compensatory violence is not something superficial, the result of evil influences, bad habits, and so on. It is a power in man as intense and strong as his wish to live. It is so strong precisely because it constitutes the revolt of life against its being crippled; man has a potential for destructive and sadistic violence because he is human, because he is not a thing, and because he must try to destroy life if he cannot create it. (32)
Always through my life I have been haunted by such destructive, sadistic violence, brought alive through my relationships with survivors of civil war, kidnapping, rape, torture…and the occasional encounters with torturers themselves. These occasional encounters that were harder to understand than anything else. But this book makes more sense of them than anything else I have yet read, and I don’t think that’s just because I seek for hope…
Compensatory violence … indicates the crippling and emptiness of life. But in its very negation of life it still demonstrates man’s need to be alive and not to be a cripple. (33)
This in fact makes sense of so much. I love Fromm in that he does not just focus on the violence, but on its opposite — the kind of person we can strive to be as opposed to the kind of person who lives in fear, who wants to shut things down, the fear in people I have tried and failed to work with, the fear I see splashed across the news.
But I thought perhaps in this post I would focus on violence and evil, because there is too much here. So in the next post I look at biophilia, and the material conditions that make it possible (as a good Marxist should). Also like a good Marxist, the ways in which Fromm argues that a wish for life and for death are always in relationship to each other, a contradiction that is not resolved:
The contradiction between Eros and destruction, between the affinity to life and the affinity to death is, indeed, the most fundamental contradiction which exists in man. This duality, however, is not one of two biologically inherent instincts, relatively constant and always battling with each other until the final victory of the death instinct, but it is one between the primary and most fundamental tendency of life–to persevere in life–and its contradiction, which comes into being when man fails in this goal. (50)
One example — and I like how Fromm anchors these more abstract explorations of the mind to that which makes no sense in the world yet that could destroy us all. Fromm asks, for example, how can we understand the lack of more widespread protest of nuclear weapons?
There are many answers; yet none of them gives a satisfactory explanation unless we include the following: that people are not afraid of total destruction because they do not love life; or because they are indifferent to life, or even because many are attracted to death. (56)
III – Individual and Social Narcissism
One of the most fruitful and far-reaching of Freud’s discoveries is his concept of narcissism. (62)
Fromm further develops this concept to understand violence and war — to do so he removes it from where Freud has ‘forced his concept into the frame of his libido theory.’ (62) Instead, Fromm argues the concept comes ‘to its full fruition…if one uses a concept of psychic energy which is not identical with the energy of the sexual drive’ (64), as described by Jung (and Freud moved towards this in his later years). It is an energy that Fromm argues
binds, unifies, and holds together the individual within himself as well as the individual in his relationship to the world outside. (64)
All of us have a degree of narcissism, it helps us survive and so again, there are a spectrum of behaviours (and a curious list of behaviour that offer clues to the narcissistic individual, one that delights me as a novelist) explored by Fromm. These range from the simply self-preoccupied with the self, to the narcissism focused on ones children, to the psychopath.
Narcissism is a passion the intensity of which in many individuals can only be compared with sexual desire and the desire to stay alive. In fact, many times it proves to be stronger than either. (72)
The essential point…is that the narcissistic person cannot perceive the reality within another person as distinct from his own. (68)
In a different form:
The most dangerous result of narcissistic attachment is the distortion of rational judgement… He and his are overevaluated. Everything outside is underevaluated. …
An ever more dangerous pathological element in narcissism is the emotional reaction to any criticism…(73-74)
Both explosive anger or depression are reactions — a depression often deflected by turning on purpose to anger. A third reaction? The attempt to make reality itself conform to a narcissistic image of self or the loved one. Hitler being the best example of such a course. There is the extreme narcissism of the infant, and of the insane. And then the particular instance of narcissism on the borderline between sanity and insanity — Ceasers, Borgias, Hitler, Stalin:
They have attained absolute power; their word is the ultimate judgment of everything, including life and death; there seems to be no limit to their capacity to do what they want. They are gods, limited only by illness, age and death. (66)
It only occurred to me reading this that these are the beliefs of insane people, and yet for this small group such beliefs actually were true in reality. This made them even more isolated, their feelings of paranoia buttressed by people actually trying to kill them, all of which ensured they remained borderline sane — they had not actually lost all touch with reality, whereas
Psychosis is a state of absolute narcissism, one in which the person has broken all connection with reality outside, and has made his own person the substitute for reality. (166)
It becomes clear how this could be the root of so much evil. From individual cases, Fromm moves on to look at group narcissism, primarily racial narcissism as seen in the American South and Hitler’s Germany, and Jesus does this ring true in thinking both about the recent US election and Brexit:
In both instances the core of the racial superiority was, and still is, the lower middle class; this backward class; which in Germany as well as in the American South has been economically and culturally deprived, without any realistic hope of changing its situation… has only one satisfaction: the inflated image of itself as the most admirable group in the world, and of being superior to another racial group that is singled out as inferior.
Group narcissism is less easy to recognize than individual narcissism. (79)
Side note in parentheses here
(What the majority of people consider to be “reasonable” is that about which there is agreement, if not among all, at least among a substantial number of people: “reasonable,” for most people, has nothing to do with reason, but with consensus.) (79-80)
God, narcissism explains so much, and most of the world’s religions and philosophies actually work to curb narcissism in multiple ways — Fromm sees it as the goal of (hu)man to overcome narcissism, but more on that next post.
There is another chapter on incestuous ties…which did not speak to me, but the more postcolonial theory I am reading the more I wish I had paid more attention here, grappled with Fromm to counter Lacan. So I may come back to this. Later. For now I will end on Fromm’s own summation of evil, before going on to look at how he thinks we should fight for good:
1. Evilness is a specifically human phenomenon. It is the attempt to regress to the pre-human state and to eliminate that which is specifically human: reason, love, freedom. …. Evil isman’s loss of himself in the tragic attempt to escape the burden of his humanity. And the potential of evil is all the greater because man is endowed with an imagination that enables him to imagine all the possibilities for evil and thus to desire and act on them… (148)
2. The degrees of evilness are at the same time the degrees of regression. The greatest evil is those strivings which are most directed against life; the love for death, the incestuous-symbiotic striving to return to the womb, to the soil, to the inorganic; the narcissistic self-immolation which makes a man an enemy of life, precisely because he can’t leave the prison of his own ego.
3. There is lesser evil, according to the lesser degree of regression. There is lack of love, lack of reason, lack of interest, lack of courage.
4. Man is inclined to regress and to move forward; this is another way of saying he is inclined to good and to evil.
5. Man is responsible up to the point where he is free to (149) choose for his own action [and see the next post on the material constraints on freedom, which are vital to remember here]. But responsibility is nothing but an ethical postulate… Precisely because evil is human…it is inside every one of us. The more we are aware of it, the less are we able to set ourselves up as judges of others.
6. Man’s heart can harden; it can become inhuman, yet never nonhuman. … We must not rely on anyone’s saving us, but be very aware that wrong choices make us incapable of saving ourselves. (150)
I rather like this description of evil, I think it is something we must think about but in the West, liberal academia is a little too removed from their own wars and the death and destruction and torture and poverty that surround them to find this an important subject. But look at our world. What else should we be talking about, and in what other way than one well-grounded both in our psyche and the material conditions in which we live and struggle?
[Fromm, Erich (1964) The Heart of Man: Its Genius for Good and Evil. NY: Harper & Row.]
Andrew Graham-Dixon’s biography Caravaggio (1571-1610) is very good, very long, full of wonderful detail about everyday life and a great deal of analysis of Caravaggio’s work which I found interesting, without agreeing with all of his interpretations.
It still sits with me days after finishing it, the life of Caravaggio. The explosive talent. The extreme physical violence of his life in a society permissive of extreme violence, winking at it when patronage was high and powerful enough. The violence of poverty, and the violence of painting only by commission rather than by desire, to please and to flatter the rich. To be paid only if they approved of your work — and a number of Caravaggio’s patrons refused his work. To be constantly judged by criteria you do not believe in.
A quote to set the scene in terms of sources:
Much of what is known about him has been discovered in the criminal archives of his time. The majority of his recorded acts — apart from those involved in painting — are crimes and misdemeanors.
He always looks troubled and angry, but in some ways the extent to which he was allowed to explore his own art was only possible because of his time’s changing social ideas of it. Graham-Dixon describes these changes occurring only a generation before Caravaggio’s:
Previously the profession of art had been ranked low because it involved work with the hands and was therefore classed as a form of manual labour, a craft rather than a liberal art.
This changed to a view of greatest artists as ‘men of true genius’ — though men still much at the mercy of their patrons — through Giorgio Vasari’s anthology of artist biographies The Lives of the Most Excellent Painters, Sculptors and Architects (1550). Caravaggio would not prove to be a prodigy from an early age, like most. But like other artists he would leave home (he is actually one Michelangelo Merisi of Caravaggio — but the town he was born in has become the name he was, and is, known by) for Milan, and then Rome.
As Florence had been during the fifteenth century, and as Paris would be at the peak of Louis XIV’s power, Rome under Clement VIII was the artistic capital of Europe.
Graham-Dixon notes the slightly more fluid medieval aristocratic structures in Italy as compared to Northern Europe, as well as the idea that ‘an increasingly urbanized society … led to the blurring of social distinctions.’ There is so much fascinating detail in here on life in Rome itself in here, and given my interests, what I most enjoyed apart from the art itself. An early version of the surveillance state, for example. I don’t know why this surprised me so much, but it did:
Religious observance was not a matter of choice. At Easter everyone living in Rome was obliged to take communion and procure a ticket of evidence from the priest who administered the sacrament. Procuring the ticket — proof of orthodoxy, and necessary to pass muster with the police — was itself part of a system of surveillance and involved a separate visit to the priest, who was obliged to write down the name and address of each communicant. But he also had to write down other details…
Another fun fact about the Rome of this time was the way in which the discovery of the Christian catacombs (the ones I thought everyone in Rome had surely always known about — how were they forgotten?) under Rome led to ‘a boom in the field of what might be called sacred archaeology.’ In the late 15 and early 1600s. I hope to read some of these — I quite love archaeology and am rather fascinated by such a ‘discovery’ but to return to art.
After several years of apprenticeships and poverty, Caravaggio won the patronage of Cardinal Del Monte, a man of learning with a love of the arts, apart from having his own pharmaceutical distillery (a fad of the time), he was also a patron of music (the first opera was written in 1600 by a friend, Emilio de’ Cavalieri). Slowly through the book you watch Caravaggio’s characteristic style develop.
One of Caravaggio’s early, extraordinary paintings, Boy Bitten By a Lizard (c1596)
It is quite wonderful to make this journey through his work, just as it is to note the small touches — like the fact that the music in The Rest on the Flight To Egypt is identifiable, the four-voiced Quam Pulchra es et quam decora, by Noel Bauldewyn (c1480-1520) — hear it. I love the internet, imagine being able to listen to this today as you stare at the painting itself.
More descriptions of Caravaggio, dark hair, dark eyes, great dark brows, disorderly, Bellori (one of his biographer’s) writes:
We cannot fail to mention his behaviour and his choice of clothes, since he wore only the finest materials and princely velvets; but once he put on a suit of clothes he changed only when it had fallen to rags.
Little could tell you more about someone in a way, and I love that clothing in various states of disrepair is to be found everywhere in his paintings. The poverty of his models and subjects is never hidden. Nor is his own suffering, in 1596 he painted this shield to be held and passed around, a portrait of medusa as a gift for the Medici using his own face as the model, distorted in a round mirror that appears in others paintings as well.
A shocking image of himself. A note on materials, on toxicity and poison like that of the serpents in Medusa’s coils:
Some ascribed the fiery temperament of painters to the toxic qualities of the materials that they used. Lead white and vermilion were particularly poisonous. The mere touch or smell of either might cause a variety of symptoms including depression, anxiety, and increased aggressiveness. Those suffering from ‘Painter’s Colic’, as it was called, also tended to drink heavily.
Not vermilion! What a word, what a color. There seems to be a great deal in Caravaggio’s work, one great red sheet of fabric that wraps saints round being the most obvious one. I like to think it is always the same one. Returning to his style, Bellori writes
The painters then in Rome were greatly taken by this novelty, and the young ones particularly gathered around him, praised him as the unique imitator of nature and look on his work as miracles.
Evidence of its development can be seen in Martha and Mary Magdalen (c. 1598) — and also here is to be seen Fillide Melandroni, a famous courtesan in several of Caravaggio’s paintings.
Here she is again as St Catharine of Alexandria (c. 1598)– I wish I had seen this earlier, when I worked at the Foundation. More shadows.
There is the story of Fillide’s arrest for threatening another woman, testimony of her screaming out ‘I want to cut her face!’ The ultimate insult. Graham-Dixon notes that the world of painters and poets is also that of prostitutes and pimps, and the probability of Caravaggio’s being a pimp — controlling women for both modelling and for incomes, explains the many times he is arrested late at night or early in the morning, much of the violence, the carrying of an illegal sword and dagger under the protection of powerful patronage, and the source of the long-running conflict that would eventually lead to the murder of Tomassoni for which he was exiled.
Violence fills his paintings, Judith Behading Holofernes (c. 1598), David with the head of Goliath (1599). I am not so enamoured of these, though they are powerful and skillful. Artemisia Gentileschi, of course, also painted Judith holding the head of a Holofornes based on the face of her rapist — she was the daughter of a friend of Caravaggio’s and a most wonderful painter in much the same style. But I am looking forward to exploring her life and art separately, yet her story cannot be forgotten in this accounting of the terrible violence inflicted on women in this period more broadly.
This painting I love, the Calling of St Matthew (1600):
Another one — The Crucifixion of St Peter (1601)
Graham-Dixon writes that:
The presence of these coarsely posed, unmistakably low-brow figures underscored Caravaggio’s total rejection of High Renaissance and Mannerist elegance.
The fact that everyone in his paintings has bare feet has great meaning, and in fact Caragvaggio becoming famous as the painter of feet — Graham-Dixon quotes Niccolo Lorini del Monte:
In sum, feet may be taken by the holy Church as symbolising the poor and the humble.
Many among the upper classes hated their appearance in his paintings, along with the poor and humble subjects in their everyday torn clothes and positions of work and suffering. Graham-Dixon persuasively argues that this was closely tied with the counter-reformation leanings of the pauperist wing of the Catholic church, and the preaching exactly along these lines of the famous Borromeo, Archbishop of Milan, whose words Caravaggio would have grown up with. This also helps define Caravaggio’s focus on Christ and the martyr’s intimate and personal suffering that was praised as a subject for religious meditation. There is also an argument for some form of class identification, some anger over poverty and privilege, although clearly nothing about Caravaggio is straightforward and he exploited his own privileges fairly ruthlessly.
When Caravaggio painted the saints and martyrs with bare feet, he was firmly allying himself with pauperist wing of the Catholic Church. Not only was he explicitly welcoming the poor into his pictures, making them feel part of the same impoverished family as that of Christ and his followers, he was also implicitly calling on the rich to follow the example of those such as St Francis … The message would not always be well received.
It was very different from the rising countercurrent of
a newly triumphalist Church… It did not welcome the poor and the meek or make them feel that they, ultimately, were the inheritors of the earth. It was there to awe, daunt, and stupefy them, to impress them with visions of a force so powerful it could not be resisted — and must, therefore, be obeyed.
Graham-Dixon describes this is as a new Baroque sensibility — one with no room for Caravaggio. It seems to me that all these paintings of the poor might also be a kind of revenge against the rich to whom Caravaggio must look for all things — money for paints and canvasses, clothes, a roof over his head. He was one of the few to try to renegotiate commissions (more on that later)… this world seems so distant from my modern sensibilities, yet it seems so clear how galling this system of patronage was to Caravaggio, if only through the amount of time he spent doing what he could to sabotage it all through gambling, drink, brawling, prostitutes and constant rumours of boys. Graham-Dixon notes his probable relationship with Cecco, his servant and model, but there is little deeper exploration of what his queerness might mean (and some of these paintings are ridiculously queer).
Caravaggio leaves the house of Cardinal de Monte for that of Cardinal Girolamo Mattei. Again, the connections between time, money and influence, and the city form is brought to the fore:
They lived in a honeycomb complex of houses and palaces built over the ruins of the Ancient Roman Teatro di Balbo… The adjoining residence of the various branches of the family formed an entire block, known as the Isola dei Mattei.
It is a whole network of palaces and residences, worthy of Kafka. Yet another protector was Vincenzo Giustiani. It is probably he who ensured that Caravaggio was allowed a second attempt at fulfilling his commission for a painting of St Matthew as the altarpiece of the Contarelli Chapel. When the first was rejected scornfully, Giustiani bought it for himself.
Why rejected? Because Matthew is represented as too unlearned, too peasant-like. Barefoot. An old man painfully scribing, and needing help in it. I love this picture.
WWII bombs destroyed it in Berlin.
The second painting was accepted and still rests in the chapel, a capitulation to be sure, but a rather fine one, and Caravaggio insists on the bare feet:
His work continues to be extraordinary. Here, a picture of The Incredulity of Saint Thomas (c. 1602), testing grotesquely Christ’s wound, experiencing in full Christ’s suffering (familiar old men as well…).
And always, always, this work sits alongside an incredible violence in the dark streets of Rome. There is the verbal/written kind — the tradition in Rome of insult, connected to a statue in the corner of Palazzo Braschi to the western side of Piazza Novena, known as the Pasquino.
It had long been the custom to attach squibs, scurrilous pieces of grafitti and outbursts of defamatory rage to the wall next to the statue, under the cover of darkness. There was a collective noun for these libeles: pasquinate…
That sounds rather safe, a rather curious and interesting method of venting anger in a unique city space, until you read the contents. Caravaggio and his friends posted their defamatory verses about Baglione here, with much use of words like cock and fucking…juvenile, nasty. There were arrests, trials. Caravaggio’s testimony is sullen, stupid. For all that, I rather like the concept of the valent’huomo, in Caravaggio’s words (Graham-Dixon notes that to be considered a valent’huomo both in society and the art-world was always Caravaggio’s possibly fugutive goal):
By the term ‘valent’huomo’ I mean he who knows how to do well, that is, he who knows how to do his art well.
Most of the testimony, however, is a bunch of lies to praise artists in official favour and distance himself from friends involved and pretend utmost ignorance so they can all get off free. They do. Probably through patronage. Everything runs on it.
On 24 April 1604 Caravaggio got into an argument with a waiter at one of his local restaurants, the Osteria del Moro, or ‘Tavern of the Blackamoor’. In the course of an altercation concerning artichokes, he smashed a plate against the man’s face.
The tavern of the Blackamoor (interesting the number of references to slaves). I laughed at the artichokes, but it’s not really funny. This arrest is one of series. In his testimony Caravaggio claims the policeman has a grudge against him, in Graham-Dixon’s description:
The policeman was hostile and insulting whenever he bumped into him… but he stoutly denied having called the arresting officer a ‘cocksucker’ on the night in question.
That, actually, was just funny.
More on the particularities of the papal state.
Rome was a turbulent city at the best of times, but it was doubly unstable whenever the papal throne was empty. During this interregnum, normal government was effectively suspended. According to long tradition, a blanket amnesty was given to the inmates of the city’s jails.
Blanket amnesty! Returning to the thin line between curious and awful…there is this:
There was a crime of deturpatio portae, or defacing doors for which Caravaggio was charged by a mother and daughter. … a specific legal term that can be translated as ‘house-scorning’. …
Amazing you think. House-scorning. But read on:
Housescorners generally operated in the dead of night,,, They often made a lot of noise, shouting insults or singing lewd songs as a prelude to the vengeful assault itself. Then they would throw stones, damaging shutters and blinds.
They threw ink, blood, excrement, drew cocks. Most often, houses were scorned by a man when a woman had refused his advances, or perhaps somehow insulted him. It loses all hilarity.
It becomes the dirty behaviour of a pimp. An abuser. Who still paints…look, just look at what he paints.
This depicts so beautifully the crazy story of The Madonna of Loreto (1604), the miraculous event in which the house of Mary and Joseph flew (flew?) from Nazareth to Italy in the middle ages. Crikey, best myth ever. It’s quite a house as Caravaggio imagines it, but I love that the pilgrims are poor who have summoned the virgin to the door through their faith, their feet dirty and tired.
No other artist had ever given such prominence, in a major religious altarpiece, to two such nakedly proletarian figures as the pair of kneeling figures.
Caravaggio inserted no patrons into his paintings, but the poor, the courtesan, the servant, and every now and then himself. Despite this, his paintings were in ever greater demand. One of my favourite threads that runs through much of Caravaggio’s story is that:
…his movements were being carefully tracked by Fabio Masetti, an agent in Rome working for Cesare d’Este, Duke of Modena.
Masetti gives Caravaggio money, on more than one occasion, but no painting is produced. Masetti tracks him for years, like a faithful shadow. We will meet him again.
And still Caravaggio is brawling, cutting people, getting arrested. He is forced to apologise to one of his victims to get a pardon from the governor — for coming up a clerk of the Vicar’s court named Messer Mariano late one night and striking him, scarring his face. Like the house-scorning, this is a public insult. The apology is hilarious, like one of those forced things a mother exhorts from her son (well, like my mum exacted from my brother Chewy) expurgated of all loopholes:
I am very sorry for what I did, and if I had not done it yet, I would not do it.
He continues to say that Mariano is worthy of facing in the daylight in a duel. It is a return of honor to him.
It feels like the violence is escalating, though in the book it is oddly sandwiched between paintings and their analyses. Graham-Dixon notes that thus seemed Caravaggio’s life, intense periods of work surrounded by growing periods of nightwalking and brawling and thuggery. Pimping. This brings us to the moment of murder, in what was almost certainly a duel between Caravaggio and Ranuccio Tomassoni, between whom there had long existed violence and accusation — Tomassoni was the pimp of Fillide, and if Caravaggio were also a pimp (who had clearly stolen Fillide) this makes more sense of much of his behaviour.
Initial reports, though, seemed to describe this as an accidental brawl over a late-night game of tennis. That was rather funny.
Mesetti the agent reported hopefully back to d’Este after the incident that Caravaggio had fled Rome badly wounded and was heading to Florence — which meant he might well swing through Modena and paint as he had promised.
This really is the beginning of the end for Caravaggio. His sentence:
…indefinite exile from Rome, he was condemned as a murderer and made subject to a bando capitale, a ‘capital sentence’. This meant that anyone in the papal states had the right to kill him with impunity; indeed there was a bounty for anyone who did so.
A brilliant drawing from a policeman’s report drawing the offending weapons that Caravaggio carried in defiance of the law.
And so Caravaggio flees. First to Naples, a centre of trade of goods and people. He also notes the many communities there, Pisans, Catalands, Ragusans… Ragusans? Once the Republic of Ragusa, now known as Dubrovnik.
Once arrived in Naples, Caravaggio was deluged with work. He receives a commission from the Pio Monte della Misericordia, probably led by Giovanni Battista Manso (who was a friend of Galileo, who hosted Milton — it is hard to imagine them all contemporaries). Caravaggio painted the Seven Acts of Mercy for them. Not my favourite. But then there was The Flagellation:
Pictures such as the Seven Acts and TheFlagellation were greeted with stunned admiration, bordering on bewilderment. They created a sensation and transformed Neopolitan painting virtually overnight. Caravaggio’s extreme chiaroscuro and his brutal sense of reality were the catalyst for a new school of tenebristic painting in Naples. And through this city at the crossroad between Italian and Spanish art, Caravaggoio’s starkly powerful new style was transmitted to Spain Itself.
But Caravaggio had bigger plans, which would soon send him to Malta — which is in part why I have read this, because I love Caravaggio’s art but also, guess what you guys? I am going to Malta! So more on Malta in a separate post. This one is enormous, and I give you my apologies.
Last night at Bristol’s Watershed we went to see The Fabulous Nicholas Brothers:
Bruce Goldstein, Director of Repertory Programming at Film Forum in New York, presents a unique compilation tribute to the greatest dancers of the 20th century the Nicholas Brothers, featuring a collage of rarely seen home movies, photographs and film clips.
It was — the Fabulous Nicholas Brothers were — amazing. I perhaps use that adjective too much, my enthusiasms lace my writing with ‘I loved’ and ‘brilliant’ and other such encomiums so that perhaps they lose some meaning. But little I have ever experienced compares to the feeling of pure joy that dance can grant, particularly as embodied by Fayard and Harold Lloyd Nicholas. Before Bruce Goldstein began, they started with this clip, ‘Lucky Number’ (1936):
Throughout their career, in addition to the jaw-dropping virtuosity of their movements, there is a joy in dance and in dancing with each other that is a gift to watch. It fills you up as you watch it, together with awe that such things might be done.
I will also note that this format, of talk interspersed with clips, from someone as knowledgeable and personable as Bruce Goldstein who knew the brothers personally, was awesome. He had loads of footage from the Fabulous Nicholas Brothers’ own home videos including some of their unique film of the Cotton Club performances, which rendered it incredible. You are sorry you missed it.
Anyway. You take all of this, the very best and the most beautiful of talent, and you set it in Jim Crow America. This ensures the Fabulous Nicholas Brothers are billed most of their lives as a ‘specialty act’ (though usually at the top of the bill). I think for all I have read, watched, wrestled with, this exposed an entirely new view of how damaging Jim Crow was. How crazy it was.
Absolutely batshit crazy.
There’s Pie Pie Blackbird. Crazy. Immense talent to be found singing and dancing about the master’s ‘blackbird pie’.
As a reference to master sleeping with his slaves, it hardly seems veiled at all. And so it is that here, the Fabulous Nicholas Brothers in their 1932 debut get called little pickinninies.
Wonderful without reservations is their appearance in the 1935 All Coloured Vaudeville Movie — and look at that city background, this is really an urban art after all, not one tied to the plantation south, but to Harlem, to Chicago, to the places that beckoned towards freedom and equality (though still have yet to grant it). Fayard is performing in his characteristic three piece suit — he wore it at almost all times (there’s home footage of him wearing it at the tennis courts, on the beach), a fashion statement against the indignities and disrespect of Jim Crow, and I love him for it:
Yet so many of these clips make me feel Jim Crow viscerally. After a rather saccharine display of white doo-wop and the (rather good don’t you know) Glen Miller band, there is the joy and virtuosity of the Fabulous Nicholas Brothers and the equally fabulous Dorothy Dandridge (who married Harold, how did I not know?). Carefully orchestrated so the whole section is separate from the white musicians, able to be cut entirely for Southern audiences — a prime reason the Nicholas Brothers would always perform self-contained ‘numbers’ rather than roles.
I found this separateness physically painful to watch, which sat strangely beside the absolute joy of the performance itself. But more bewildering were these two clips, the first the 1934 ‘Minstrel Man’ from Kid Millions
Apart from it being cool that Lucille Ball is in this, I sat wondering in what insane ideological space the whole of America was in to make such a musical number possible, such plunging necklines and singing about loving a minstrel man when Black men were being lynched in the South for even looking the wrong way at a white woman.
Their number from Tin Pan Alley (1940) is even crazier:
I couldn’t stop thinking about Emmet Till through the whole of this damn number. What the actual fuck. Never in a million years could I have imagined such a thing in 1940. In struggling to make sense of it, I think a partial answer is that the category of youth allowed Harold Nicholas to be non-threatening enough for ‘Minstrel Man’, and the category of ‘performing slave’ to be non-threatening enough for Tin Pan Alley (and the absence of sexual innuendo or physical contact). And yet. It doesn’t really explain it to my satisfaction.
Nothing does. Think of Billie Holiday singing ‘Strange Fruit’ in 1939: Southern trees bear a strange fruit / Blood on the leaves and blood at the root / Black bodies swingin’ in the Southern breeze / Strange fruit hangin’ from the poplar trees. The two performances together somehow make white power and violence even more terrifying in ways I am unable to understand. Perhaps it is the impossibility of reconciling these two things that is the most terrifying, how do you fight what is impossible to understand?
World War II would start to move change along again, Fayard would be drafted into the Jim Crow Army’s laundry brigade.
The Pirate (1948), with Gene Kelley, was the first film where Black and white dancers interacted together, as something like equals (where Gene Kelley, who is a superb dancer, is struggling to keep up in fact).
Still the brothers’ speaking roles were cut from the final film, they remained listed as a specialty act.
Bruce Goldstein writes of all those they influenced:
The dancer’s dancers, their fans have included Gene Kelly, who teamed up with them in The Pirate; Bob Fosse and Gregory Hines, whose first acts were modelled on them; ballet legends George Balanchine and Mikhail Baryshnikov; Michael Jackson, who once had Fayard as a dance coach; and Fred Astaire, who named their Stormy Weather ‘staircase’ number the greatest of all musical sequences.
Yet watching this talk I was struck by how much better all of those dancers and all of their performances could have been in a world without racism, where the Fabulous Nicholas Brothers could have found a rightful respect and a rightful place in musicals and movies. The leading roles they deserved. The space to further develop their art. Instead they moved to Paris. After four years Fayard moved home, because home is home, you know? No one should have to leave home to feel like a human being. No one should have to choose between performing with his brother or being treated like a human being. Harold had to, chose the second for a time. Remained in Paris. Ended up coming home to be with his brother.
Here they are reunited at the Hollywood Palace in 1965. Fayard is 51.
How wonderful they are. How angry I remain at this larger context and history.
Finally to end, and to end on the wonderful just as the talk did, the most wonderful routine of all (of all!) from Stormy Weather, which we are lucky enough to have tickets to see on the big screen on Sunday!
I am going to learn to tap dance. I will not be good, but perhaps I might come to express some of my joy with my feet in such a way…
Just communities, just cities, Just connections between country and city. Also, the weird and wonderful.