Sunday, 23 September 2012

If This is a Man and human suffering

Can we write about human suffering in a way that does not reduce it to the poverty of an indulgence? Do words exist with a tensile strength that can hold the pain of one soul, let alone six million souls? Does the creative imagination have the nerve to view the open wounds of another human being? Or is silence the only response before the charnel house of human misery? Is not our every inadequate attempt to say something meaningful, an insult to those who suffer?

Over the summer, I read Primo Levi’s If This is a Man and The Truce. They are witness statements to the industrial genocide of the Nazi Holocaust. Levi, an Italian-Jew and chemist, was arrested on 13 December 1943 for being a member of the anti-fascist resistance movement “Justice and Liberty”. On 21 February 1944, he and 124 people were transported to Auschwitz. On his arrival, his arm was tattooed with the number 174517. When the camp was liberated at the beginning of 1945, only Levi and two others from this group had survived the hell of this concentration camp.

These books have, in the words of Philip Roth, a “moral stamina” and it is this which charges them with the creative daring to describe the horrors of the death camps. Levi trains his attention on the molecular makeup of each sadistic act of degradation and, ever the chemist, distils this violence through a prose so precise and diamond cut that it produces a purifying quality. His language exhibits none of the splintered rhetoric of pathos or revenge. This is prose cleansed of exaggeration and literary effect. With the care of a laboratory technician, Levi handles his words, potentially volatile words, with such reverence that they would, as he put it, “assume the calm, sober language of the witness”

In Levi’s writing, the evil of the Shoah is revealed in its proper moral context as the absence of good. For Levi, his experience of Auschwitz is primarily a moral one. There he witnessed man in his most demoralised state, where people freely chose to mutilate their moral natures by butchering their goodness so that they could perpetrate acts of barbarism. But Auschwitz was also the place where Levi saw how when man is stripped of every physical and emotional dignity, he still retains his moral grandeur, his personhood, because that cannot be taken from him by violence or force. Primo Levi could never have become a number. The soul of man rebels against that violence which aims to violate the truth of the human person and in doing so, what is true and good about man asserts itself with greater urgency. Levi writes:

...after only one week of prison, the instinct for cleanliness completely disappeared in me. I wander aimlessly around the washroom when I suddenly see Steinlauf, my friend aged almost fifty, with nude torso, scrub his neck and shoulders with little success (he has no soap) but great energy. Steinlauf sees me and greets me, and without preamble asks me severely why I do not wash. Why should I wash? Would I be better off than I am? Would I please someone more? Would I live a day, an hour longer? I would probably live a shorter time because to wash is an effort, a waste of energy and warmth...We will all die, we are all about to die...Steinlauf interrupts me. He has finished washing and is now drying himself with his cloth jacket which he was holding before wrapped up between his knees and which he will soon put on. And without interrupting the operation he administers me a complete lesson...This was the sense, not forgotten either then or later: that precisely because the Lager was a great machine to reduce us to beasts, we must not become beasts; that even in this place one can survive, and therefore one must want to survive, to tell the story, to bear witness; and that to survive we must force ourselves to save at least the skeleton, the scaffolding, the form of civilization...We must walk erect, without dragging our feet, not in homage to Prussian discipline but to remain alive, not to begin to die.

Primo Levi was well versed in the periodic table of the material world. But he also came to an understanding that there exists a periodic table of the moral world. Here, elemental virtues, essential to the makeup of man, are to be discovered and even when man is most debased, these cannot be destroyed. The man of sorrows remains a man. We are made to be moral beings and living as such we find in our suffering a redemptive power.

Philip Roth has described If This is a Man and The Truce as “one of the century’s truly necessary books”. It is. This is a book that moved me to tears but it also fired my conviction that we can and must write about suffering, that this is an imperative if we are to continue to believe in a moral universe.

If This is a Man and The Truce, Primo Levi, Penguin Books, 1979

Saturday, 15 September 2012

On true feeling: Lucian Freud and Anton Chekhov

On the 28 November 2003 at 6.30 pm, the art critic, Martin Gayford, sat in a low leather chair and fixed a pose. He would hold this same pose at dozens of sittings over the next seven months. He had agreed to have his portrait painted by the great figurative painter, Lucian Freud (1922-2011).

Gayford kept a diary of the sittings, reflecting on the long gestation period of the painting and his deepening relationship with the artist. The intense experience of being an object of Freud’s penetrating gaze is told in a beautifully illustrated book, Man with a Blue Scarf:On sitting for a portrait with Lucian Freud.

Gayford’s vivid account is a reminder that all great art sets out to achieve just one, difficult thing: to map the ridges and contours of the human condition in as accurate a fashion as the imagination will allow. To achieve this, the artist refuses to subdue our complexities and ambiguities into a cliché or formulaic style. Abjuring sentimentality or rhetorical flourishes, serious art reveals the grandeur of the human person with a crystalline clarity.

By paying close attention to the atomic makeup of our humanity, the artist serves to increase our stature. The artist hones in on a previously ill defined aspect of our humanity and, through the lens of his imagination, brings it into focus by a true, rather than counterfeit light. An oblique, unspoken knowledge of what makes us human is thus expressed, given form and definition, and provokes in us a sense of recognition and wonder. Then, we are ready to confess, behold the man.

When we encounter art that possesses this quality of imagination, the cataracts of delusion and narcissism that distort our vision are momentarily mended. We catch, some entirely surprising, potentially transformative, truth about what it is to be human. For me, Shakespeare, Chekhov, Tolstoy, Rembrandt, Van Gogh, T.S.Eliot,among others, possess this fierce, irresistible power.

Every detail, every fastidious worm and gob of oil paint, in a Freud painting exists to guard his work from artifice and rhetorical filigree. He, like his friend, the artist, Francis Bacon, was interested only in “the brutality of fact”. Gayford writes:

LF (Lucian Freud) leans forward sometimes, shading his eyes like a sailor in search of land. His demeanour when painting is that of an explorer or hunter in some dark forest. He peers at me, holding his palette in his hand, with the brushes he is not using held between his little finger and the next, protruding like arrows in a quiver. His attitude is a combination of audacity with caution: an intense determination to get the thing exactly right.

Most human beings do not possess this determination. We are prone to live slapdash, bodge-job lives, to accept the superficial, the makeshift and prefabricated over the discipline and effort of getting the thing exactly right.

Great artists do not live in this way. They possess a highly developed self-critical awareness. They do not bear false witness. Their faith is that there is a truth to be discovered about the human person and creation. It is their vocation to look very, very hard for this truth. Their gaze is simultaneously interrogative and contemplative.

A familiar criticism of the artist is that they are fleeing reality by an aesthetic route into some arty la-la land that is divorced from reality. Freud’s work challenged that criticism. He abhorred false feeling and superficial representations of reality. His lifetime’s project was to make reality present to us through the faculty of the imagination – to see ourselves and things as they really are. Discussing his dislike of drug use with Gayford, Freud articulates this central, motivating belief:

People say such things as, “Oh, they make me see such marvellous colours”- which to my mind is a horrible idea. I don’t want to see marvellous colours. I want to see the same colours,and that is hard enough. Then they say that they are taken out of this world, but I don’t want to be out of this world, I want to be absolutely in it,all of the time.

After I had finished reading Man with a Blue Scarf, I immediately picked up a collection of Anton Chekhov short stories. I read The Lady with the Little Dog(1899),one of his finest stories. It exhibits the same qualities of honesty and true feeling that I would argue all great art must have. I want to end this post in a tangential way with a quotation from this story,one which requires no comment but is, I think, complete in itself and a good example of true feeling. In my view, Chekhov and Lucian Freud inhabit the same aesthetic order.

The Lady with the Little Dog concerns a serial adulterer, Dmitry Gurov, who treats women as his “inferior breed” – there simply to pander to his emotional and sexual needs. He sets his predatory sights on the newest woman in town, Anna Sergeyevna,and begins an affair with her. With time, however, this casual liaison turns into something more substantial. Gurov begins to fall in love with Anna and she with him. In a remarkable paragraph,alive with insight and psychological truth, Chekov writes:

He (Gurov) was leading a double life:one was undisguised, plain for all to see and known to everyone who needed to know, full of conventional truths and conventional deception, identical to the lives of his friends and acquaintances;and another which went on in secret. And by some strange, possibly fortuitous chain of circumstances, everything that was important, interesting and necessary for him, where he behaved sincerely and did not deceive himself and which was the very essence of his life – that was conducted in absolute secrecy; whereas all that was false about him, the front behind which he hid in order to conceal the truth – for instance, his work at the bank, those quarrelsat the club, his notion of an “inferior breed”, his attending anniversary celebrations with his wife – that was plain for all to see. And he judged others by himself, disbelieving what he saw, invariably assuming that everyone’s true, most interesting life was carried on under the cloak of secrecy, under the cover of night,as it were. The private, personal life of everyone is grounded in secrecy and this perhaps partly explains why civilized man fusses so neurotically over having this personal secrecy respected.

Man with a Blue Scarf:on sitting for a portrait by Lucian Freud, Martin Gayford, Thames & Hudson, 2010

The Lady with the Little Dog in The Lady with the Little Dog and Other Stories, 1896-1904,Anton Chekhov, trans. Ronald Wilks, Penguin Books