The Highest

“The highest which a man can attain is astonishment.”
Johann Wolfgang von Goethe

 

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Gravity’s Rainbow

 

Gravity’s Rainbow is a 1973 novel by American writer Thomas Pynchon. The plot  is complex, containing over 400 characters and involving many different threads of narrative which intersect and weave around one another. The recurring themes throughout the plot are the V-2 rocket, interplay between free will and Calvinistic predestination, breaking the cycle of nature, behavioral psychology, sexuality, paranoia and conspiracy theories such as the Phoebus cartel and the Illuminati.

The novel’s title declares its ambition and sets into resonance the oscillation between doom and freedom expressed throughout the book. An example of the superfluity of meanings characteristic of Pynchon’s work during his early years, Gravity’s Rainbow refers to:

*the parabolic trajectory of a V-2 rocket: the “rainbow-shaped” path created by the missile as it moves under the influence of gravity, subsequent to the engine’s deactivation;
the arc of the plot. Critics such as Weisenburger have found this trajectory to be cyclical or circular, like the true shape of a rainbow. This follows in the literary tradition of James Joyce‘s Finnegans Wake and Herman Melville‘s The Confidence-Man.

*The statistical pattern of impacts from rocket-bombs, invoked frequently in the novel by reference to the Poisson distribution.

*The introduction of randomness into the science of physics through the development of quantum mechanics, breaking the assumption of a deterministic universe.

*The animating effect of mortality on the human imagination.

Pynchon has brilliantly combined German political and cultural history with the mechanisms of paranoia to create an exceedingly complex work of art. The most important cultural figure in Gravity’s Rainbow is not Johann Wolfgang von Goethe or Richard Wagner, however, but Rainer Maria Rilke, Captain Blicero’s favorite poet. In a way, the book could be read as a serio-comic variation on Rilke’s Duino Elegies and their German Romantic echoes in Nazi culture. The “Elegies” begin with a cry: “Who, if I screamed, would hear me among the angelic orders? And even if one of them suddenly pressed me against his heart, I would fade in the strength of his stronger existence. For Beauty is nothing but the beginning of Terror that we’re still just able to bear, and why we adore it is because it serenely disdains to destroy us.”

These lines are hideously amplified in the first words of Pynchon’s novel: “A screaming comes across the sky. It has happened before, but there is nothing to compare it to now.” This sound is the scream of a V-2 rocket hitting London in 1944; it is also the screams of its victims and of those who have launched it. It is a scream of sado-masochistic orgasm, a coming together in death, and this too is an echo and development of the exalted and deathly imagery of Rilke’s poem.

Pynchon’s novel is strung between these first lines of the Duino Elegies and the last: “And we, who have always thought of happiness as climbing or ascending would feel the emotion that almost startles when a happy thing falls.” In Rilke, the “happy thing” is a sign of rebirth amidst the dead calm of winter: a “catkin” hanging from an empty hazel tree or the “rain that falls on the dark earth in early spring.” In Gravity’s Rainbow the “happy thing” that falls is a rocket like the one Blicero has launched toward London in the first pages of the book or the one also launched by Blicero that falls on the reader in the last words of the last page.

The arc of a rocket’s flight is Gravity’s Rainbow–a symbol not of God’s covenant with Noah that He will never again destroy all living things, nor of the inner instinctual wellsprings of life that will rise above the dark satanic mills in D.H. Lawrence‘s novel The Rainbow. Gravity’s Rainbow is a symbol of death: Pynchon’s characters “move forever under [the rocket]. . .as if it were the Rainbow, and they its children.”

 

Little Girl in the Big Ten, twentieth episode of The Simpsons‘ season 13 (May 12, 2002)

Lisa: You’re reading Gravity’s Rainbow?

Brownie: Re-reading it.

 

My Mother the Carjacker, second episode of The Simpson’s season 15 (November 9, 2003)

Mona Simpson read Homer Gravity’s Rainbow as a good night story. After Homer started to sleep Mona said “Thomas Pynchon you are a tough read”, before she also started to sleep

 

Gravity’s Rainbow is a song by the British band Klaxons, from the album Myths of the Near Future (2007). Pat Benatar also released an album called Gravity’s Rainbow after reading Thomas Pynchon’s novel

 

The novel inspired the 1984 song Gravity’s Angel by Laurie Anderson. In her 2004 autobiographical performance The End of the Moon, Anderson said she once contacted Pynchon asking permission to adapt Gravity’s Rainbow as an opera. Pynchon replied that he would allow her to do so only if the opera was written for a single instrument: the banjo. Anderson said she took that as a polite “no.”

 

New York artist Zak Smith created a series of 760 drawings entitled, “One Picture for Every Page of Thomas Pynchon’s Novel Gravity’s Rainbow” (also known by the title Pictures of What Happens on Each Page of Thomas Pynchon’s Novel Gravity’s Rainbow)

In Girl’s Clothing

Little Rainer Maria Rilke

 

René Karl Wilhelm Johann Josef Maria Rilke(4 December 1875 – 29 December 1926), better known as Rainer Maria Rilke, was born in Prague, capital of Bohemia (then part of Austria-Hungary, now the Czech Republic). His childhood and youth in Prague were not especially happy. His father, Josef Rilke (1838–1906), became a railway official after an unsuccessful military career. His mother, Sophie (“Phia”) Entz (1851–1931), came from a well-to-do Prague family, the Entz-Kinzelbergers, who lived in a house on the Herrengasse (Panská) 8, where René also spent many of his early years. The relationship between Phia and her only son was colored by her mourning for an earlier child, a daughter who had died only one week old. During Rilke’s early years Phia acted as if she sought to recover the lost girl through the boy by dressing him in girl’s clothing. His parents’ marriage failed in 1884. His parents pressured the poetically and artistically talented youth into entering a military academy, which he attended from 1886 until 1891, when he left owing to illness.

He skillfully foiled his father’s martial expectations, and lack of funds freed the aspiring poet from his family’s next plans for him: law school. In fact, though he attended several universities, soaking up lectures on diverse subjects throughout his life, he never graduated from any of them. About such a practical matter as a sheepskin, the finest German lyricist since Johann Wolfgang von Goethe wrote as an adolescent, “And even if I never reach my Arts degree / I’m still a scholar, as I wished to be.”

Not a Man, A Cloud in Trousers

The Infinite Recognition, René Magritte, 1963

 

A CLOUD IN TROUSERS
(Облако в штанах, Oblako v shtanakh)

Prologue

Your thought,
Fantasizing on a sodden brain,
Like a bloated lackey on a greasy couch sprawling,–
With my heart’s bloody tatters, I’ll mock it again.
Until I’m contempt, I’ll be ruthless and galling.

There’s no grandfatherly fondness in me,
There are no gray hairs in my soul!
Shaking the world with my voice and grinning,
I pass you by, — handsome,
Twentytwoyearold.

Gentle souls!
You play your love on the violin.
Crude ones beat it out on the drums violently.
But can you turn yourselves inside out, like me,
And become just two lips entirely?

Come and learn,–
You, decorous bureaucrats of angelic leagues!
Step out of those cambric drawing-rooms

And you, who can leaf your lips
Like a cook leafs the pages of her recipe books.

If you wish,–
I’ll rage on raw meat like a vandal
Or change into hues that the sunrise arouses,
If you wish,–
I can be irreproachably gentle,
Not a man, — but a cloud in trousers.

I refuse to believe in Nice blossoming!
I will glorify you regardless,–
Men, crumpled like bed-sheets in hospitals,
And women, battered like overused proverbs.

 

Part I

You think I’m delirious with malaria?

This happened.
In Odessa, this happened.

“I’ll come at four,” promised Maria.
Eight…
Nine…
Ten.

Soon, the evening,
Frowning
And Decemberish,
Left the windows
And vanished in dire darkness.

Behind me, I hear neighing and laughter
Of candelabras.

You wouldn’t recognize me if you knew me prior:
A bulk of sinews
Moaning,
Fidgeting.
What can such a clod desire?
But the clod desires many things.

Because for oneself it doesn’t matter
Whether you’re cast of copper
Or whether your heart is cold metal.
At night, you want to wrap your clamor
In something feminine,
Gentle.

And thus,
Enormous,
I hunch in the frame,
And with my forehead, I melt the window glass.
Will this love be
Tremendous or lame?
Will it sustain or pass?
A big one wouldn’t fit a body like this:
It must be a little love, —
a baby, sort of,
It shies away when the cars honk and hiss,
But adores the bells on the horse-tram.

I come face to face
With rippling rain,
Yet once more,
And wait
Splashed by city surf’s thundering roar.

Running amok with a knife outside,
Night caught up to him
And stabbed him,
Unseen.

The stroke of midnight
Fell like a head from a guillotine.

Silver raindrops on the windowpane
Were piling a grimace
And yelling.
It seemed like the gargoyles of Notre Dame
Started yelping.

Damn you!
Haven’t you had enough yet?
Cries will soon cut my throat all around.

I heard:
Softly,
Like a patient out of his bed,
A nerve leapt
Down.
At first,
He barely moved.
Then, apprehensive
And distinct,
He started prancing.
And now, he and another two,
Darted about, step-dancing.

On the ground floor, plaster was falling fast.

Nerves,
Big ones,
Little ones,–
Various!–
Galloped madly
Until, at last,
Their legs wouldn’t carry them.

Night oozed through the room and sank.
Stuck in slime, the eye couldn’t slither out of it.

Suddenly, doors started to bang
As if hotel’s teeth
Were chattering.

You entered,
Abrupt like “Take it!”
Mauling the suede gloves you carried,
And said:
“You know,–
I’m soon getting married.”

 

Les mariés dans le ciel de Paris, Marc Chagall, 1970

 

Get married then.
It’s all right,
I can handle it.
As you can see, I’m calm, of course!
Like the pulse
Of a corpse.

Remember?
You used to say:
“Jack London,
Money,
Love
And ardor,”–
I saw one thing only:
You were La Gioconda,
Which had to be stolen!

And someone stole you.

Again in love, I shall start gambling,
With fires illuminating the arch of my eyebrows.
And why not?
Sometimes, homeless ramblers
Will seek to find shelter in a burnt down house!

 

Part II

Glorify me!
The great ones are no match for me!
Upon everything that’s been done
I stamp the word “naught.”

As of now,
I have no desire to read.
Novels?
So what!

This is how books are made,
I used to think,–
Along comes a poet,
And opens his lips with ease.
Inspired, the fool simply begins to sing,–
Oh please!
It turns out:
Before they can sing with elation,
On their calloused feet they tramp for some time,
While brainless fishes of imagination
Are splashing and wallowing in the heart’s slime.
And while, hissing with rhymes, they boil
All the loves and the nightingales in a broth-like liquid,
The tongueless street merely squirms and coils,–
It has nothing to yell or even speak with.

In silence, the street dragged on the ordeal.
A scream stood erect on the gullet’s road.
While fat taxies and cabs were bristling still,
Wedged in the throat.
As if from consumption,
the trodden chest gasped for air.

The city, with gloom, blocked the road rather fast.

And when,–
Nevertheless! —
The street coughed up the strain onto the square
And pushed the portico off its throat, at last,
It seemed as if,
Accompanied by choirs of an archangel’s chorus,
Recently robbed, God would show us His heat!

But the street squatted down and yelled out coarsely:
“Let’s go eat!”

Krupps and Krupplets gather around
To paint menacing brows on the city,
While in the gorge,
Corpses of words are scatted about,–
Two live and thrive,–
“Swine”
And another one,–
I believe, “borsch”.

And poets,
Soaking in sobs and complaining,
Run from the street, resentful and sour:
“With those two words there’s no way to portray now
A beautiful lady,
And love
And a dew-covered flower!”

And after the poets,
Thousands of others stampeded:
Students,
Prostitutes,
Salesmen.

Why should I care about Faust?
In a fairy display of the fireworks’ loot,
He’s gliding with Mephistopheles
On the parquet of galaxies!
I know,–
A nail in my boot
Is more frightening than Goethe’s fantasies!

I am
The most golden-mouthed,
With every word giving
The body – a name-day,
And the soul – a rebirth,
I assure you:
Minutest speck of the living
Is worth more than I can ever do on this earth!

Haven’t you seen
A dog licking the hand that it’s being thrashed by?

I am laughed at
By the present-day tribe.
They’ve made
A dirty joke out of me.
But I can see crossing mountains of time,
Him, whom others can’t see.

Where men’s sight falls short,
Wearing the revolution’s thorny crown,
Walking at the head of a hungry horde,
The year 1916 is coming around.

And when
His advent announcing,
Joyful and proud,
You’ll step up to greet the savior,–
I will drag
My soul outside,
And trample it
So it spreads out!
And give it to you, red in blood, as a flag.

Ah, how and wherefrom
Did it come to this, –
Against luminous joy,
Dirty fists of madness,
Were raised in the air?

And
As in the Dreadnought’s downfall
With chocking spasms
Men jumped into the hatch,
Before the ship died,
The crazed Burlyuk crawled on, passing
Through the screaming gaps of his eye.
Almost bloodying his eyelids,
He emerged on his knees,
Stood up and walked
And in the passionate mood,
With tenderness, unexpected from one so obese,
He simply said:
“Good!”
It’s good when from scrutiny a yellow sweater
Hides the soul!
It’s good when
On the gibbet, in face of terror,
You shout:
“Drink Cocoa — Van Houten!”

This moment,
Like a Bengal light,
Crackling from the blast,
I wouldn’t exchange for anything,
Not for any money.

Clouded by cigar smoke,
And stretching like a liquor glass,
One could make out the drunken face of Severyanin.
How dare you call yourself a poet
And gray, like a quail, twitter away your soul!
When
With brass knuckles
This very moment
You have to split the world’s skull!

You,
With one thought alone in your head,
“Am I dancing with style?”
Look how happy I am
Instead,
I,–
A pimp and a fraud all the while.
From all of you,
Who soaked in love for plain fun,
Who spilled
Tears into centuries while you cried,
I’ll walk away
And place the monocle of the sun
Into my gaping, wide-open eye.

I’ll wear colorful clothes, the most outlandish,
And roam the earth To please and scorch the public,
And in front of me,
On a metal leash,
Napoleon will run like a little puppy.
Like a woman, quivering, the earth will lie down,
Wanting to give in, she will slowly slump.
Objects will come alive
And from all around,
Their lips will lisp:
“Yum-yum-yum-yum-yum!”

Suddenly,
Clouds
And other such stuff in the air
Stirred in some astonishing commotion,
As if workers in white, up there,
Declared a strike, all bitter and emotional.
Savage thunder peeked out of the cloud, irate.
Snorting with huge nostrils, it howled
And for a moment, the sky’s face bent out of shape,
Resembling the iron Bismarck’s scowl.
And someone,
Entangled in the clouds’ maze,
To the café, stretched out his hand now:
Both, tender somehow,
With a womanly face,
And at once, like a firing cannon.

Take your hands out of your pockets, wanderers.
Pick up a bomb, a knife or a stone
And if one happens to be armless,
Let him come to fight with his forehead alone!
Go on, starving,
Servile
And abused ones,
In this flea-swarming filth, do not rot!
Go on!
We’ll turn Mondays and Tuesdays
Into holidays, painting them with blood!
Remind the earth whom it tried to debase!
With your knives be rough!

The earth
Has grown fat like the mistress’ face,
Whom Rothschild had over-loved!
May flags flutter in the line of fire
As they do on holidays, with a flare!
Hey, street-lamps, raise the traitors higher,
Let their carcasses hang in the air.

I cursed,
Stabbed
And hit in the face,
Crawled after somebody,
Biting into their ribs.

In the sky, red like La Marseillaise,
Sunset gasped with its shuddering lips.

It’s insanity!

Not a thing will remain from the war.

Night will come,
Bite into you
And swallow you stale.
Look,–
Is the sky playing Judas once more,
With a handful of stars that were soaked in betrayal?

Slumped in the corner of the saloon, I sit,
Spilling wine on my soul and the floor,
And I see:
In the corner, round eyes are lit
And with them, Madonna bites the heart’s core.
Why bestow such radiance on this drunken mass?
What do they have to offer?
Can’t you see, once again,
They prefer Barabbas
Over the Man of Golgotha?
Maybe, deliberately,
In this human mash, not once
Do I wear a fresh-looking face.
I am,
Perhaps,
The handsomest of your sons
In the whole human race.
Give them,
The ones molded with delight,
A quick death already,
So that their children may grow up right;
Boys — into fathers
Girls — into pregnant ladies.
Like wise men, let new born babes
Grow gray with insight and thought
And they’ll come
To baptize infants with names
Of the poems I wrote.

Athletes glistened in the carriages on the street.
People burst
Overstuffed,
And their fat oozed out,
Like a muddy river, it streamed on the ground,
Together with juices from
A cud of old meat.

Maria!
How can I fit a tender word into bulging ears?
A bird
Sings for alms
With a hungry voice
Rather well,

A poet sings praises to Tiana all day,
But I,–
I’m made of flesh,
I’m a man,–
I ask for your body,
Like Christians pray:
“Give us this day
Our daily bread.”

I’ll climb out
Filthy (sleeping in gullies all night),
And into his ear, I’ll whisper
While I stand
At his side:
“Mister God, listen!
Isn’t it tedious
To dip your generous eyes into clouds
Every day, every evening?
Let’s, instead,
Start a festive merry-go-round
On the tree of knowledge of good and evil!
Omnipresent, you’ll be all around us!
From wine, all the fun will ensue
And for once, Peter will not be frowning,
He’ll perform the fast-paced dance, ki-ka-pu.
We’ll bring all the Eves back into Eden:
Order me
And I’ll go,–
From boulevards,
I’ll pick up all the pretty girls needed
And bring them to you!
Should I?
No?
You’re shaking your curly head coarsely?
You’re knitting your brows like you’re rough?
Do you think
That this
Winged one, close by,
Knows true meaning of love?
I too am an angel; used to be one before,–
With a sugar lamb’s eye, I stared at your faces,
But I don’t want to give presents to mares anymore,–
All the torture of Sevres that’s been made into vases.
Almighty, You created two hands,
And with care,
Made a head, and went down the list,–
But why did you make it
So that it pained
When one had to kiss, kiss, kiss?!
I thought that you were Great God, Almighty,
But you’re a miniature idol, — a dunce in a suit,
Bending over, I’m reaching
For the knife that I’m hiding
At the top of my boot.
You, swindlers with wings,
Huddle in fright!
Ruffle your shuddering feathers, rascals!
You, reeking of incense, I’ll open you wide,
From here all the way to Alaska.

Let me go!

You can’t stop me!
Whether I’m right or wrong
Makes no difference,
I will not be calmer.
Look,–
Stars were beheaded all night long
And the sky is again bloody with slaughter.

Hey you,
Heaven!
Take your hat off,
When you see me near!

Silence.

The universe sleeps.
Placing its paw
Under the black, star-infested ear.

Vladimir Mayakovsky
1914

 

Originally titled The 13th Apostle (but renamed at the advice of a censor) Mayakovsky’s first major poem was written from the vantage point of a spurned lover, depicting the heated subjects of love, revolution, religion and art, taking the poet’s stylistic choices to a new extreme, linking irregular lines of declamatory language with surprising rhymes. It is considered to be a turning point in his work and one of the cornerstones of the Russian Futurist poetry.

The subject of Mayakovsky’s unrequited love was Maria Denisova whom he met in Odessa during the Futurists’ 1913 tour.Born in 1894 in Kharkov to a poor peasant family, Maria at the time resided with the family of her sister (whose husband Filippov was an affluent man) and was an art school student, learning sculpture. Vasily Kamensky described Denisova as “a girl of a rare combination of qualities: good looks, sharp intellect, strong affection for all things new, modern and revolutionary.” Mayakovsky fell in love instantly and gave her the nickname, Gioconda.

Mayakovsky started working of the poem (which he claim was born “as a letter, while on a train”) in the early 1914. He finished it in July 1915, in Kuokkala. Speaking at the Krasnaya Presnya Komsomol Palace in 1930, Mayakovsky remembered: “It started as a letter in 1913/14 and was first called “The Thirteenth Apostle”. As I came to see the censors, one of the asked me: Dreaming of doing a forced labour, eh? ‘By no means, I said, no such plans at all. So they erased six pages, as well as the title. Then, there’s the question about where the title has come from. Once somebody asked me how could I combine lyricism with coarseness. I replied: ‘Simple: you want me rabid, I’ll be it. Want me mild, and I’m not a man, a cloud in trousers.”

In The Shadow of Goethe

Vorlesung aus Goethes „Werther“ (Reading Goethe’s “Werther”), Wilhelm Amberg, 1870

 
 

Thomas Mann‘s 1939 novel, Lotte in Weimar: The Beloved Returns, or otherwise known by Lotte in Weimar or The Beloved Returns, is a story written in the shadow of Goethe; Thomas Mann developed the narrative almost as a response to Johann Wolfgang von Goethe‘s novel The Sorrows of Young Werther, although Goethe’s work is more than 150 years older than Lotte in Weimar. Lotte in Weimar was first published in English in 1940.

The Beloved Returns is the story of one of Goethe’s old romantic interests, a real historical figure by the name of Charlotte Kestner neé Buff, who has come to Weimar to see him again after more than 40 years of separation. Goethe had romanced Charlotte when they were young, but she had already been engaged (and then married) to another man whom she truly loved. Ultimately, the romance ended unconsummated; afterwards, Goethe wrote a fictional depiction of these events, with some artistic changes, and published it under the title The Sorrows of Young Werther—a still famous book, which brought early renown to Goethe. The real Charlotte became inadvertently and unwillingly famous, and remained so for the rest of her life to a certain degree.

Her return in some ways is due to her need to settle the “wrongs” done to her by Goethe in his creation of Werther; one of the underlying motifs in the story is the question of what sacrifices both a “genius” and the people around him/her must make to promote his/her creations, and whether or not Goethe (as the resident genius of Weimar) is too demanding of his supporters. Most of the novel is written as dialogues between Charlotte and other residents of Weimar, who give their own opinions on the issue of Goethe’s genius. Only in the last third of the book, starting with the internal monologue in the seventh chapter, the reader is finally directly confronted with Goethe and what he himself thinks of the entire affair.

Lotte in Weimar also echoes in subtle ways Mann’s and the world’s concerns with German military aggression and social oppression.

Rejected By Those He Loved

Steel engraving for frontispiece to the revised edition of Frankenstein by Mary Shelley, published by Colburn and Bentley, London 1831. The novel was first published in 1818.Illustration by Theodor von Holst.

Frankenstein’s monster finds Goethe’s Werther in a leather portmanteau, along with two others—Plutarch’s Lives of the Noble Greeks and Romans, and Milton’s Paradise Lost. He sees Werther’s case as similar to his own. He, like Werther, was rejected by those he loved.

Sorrows of Werther

The Basket of Bread, Salvador Dalí, 1926

 
 

WERTHER had a love for Charlotte
Such as words could never utter;
Would you know how first he met her?
She was cutting bread and butter.

Charlotte was a married lady,
And a moral man was Werther,
And for all the wealth of Indies
Would do nothing for to hurt her.

So he sigh’d and pin’d and ogled,
And his passion boil’d and bubbled,
Till he blew his silly brains out,
And no more was by it troubled.

Charlotte, having seen his body
Borne before her on a shutter,
Like a well-conducted person,
Went on cutting bread and butter.

William Makepeace Thackeray

(Written in response to the enormous success of Johann Wolfgang von Goethe‘s novel The Sorrows of Young Werther.)

When I Consider…

“When I consider the narrow limits within which our active and inquiring faculties are confined; when I see how all our energies are wasted in providing for mere necessities, which again have no further end than to prolong a wretched existence; and then that all our satisfaction concerning certain subjects of investigation ends in nothing better than a passive resignation… when I consider all this… I am silent.”

Johann Wolfgang von Goethe

The Sorrows of Young Werther

 
 

François Truffaut at the French Army, circa 1951

Entangled Step by Step

“I am amazed to see how deliberately I have entangled myself step by step. To have seen my position so clearly, and yet to have acted so like a child!”

Johann Wolfgang von Goethe
The Sorrows of Young Werther

 
 

Jean-Pierre Léaud, Claire Maurier and Albert Rémy on the set of The 400 Blows (François Truffaut, 1959)

True Blood Brothers

Max Brod and Franz Kafka, c. 1912

 
 

At the end of his first year of studies, Franz Kafka met Max Brod, a fellow law student who became a close friend for life. Brod soon noticed that, although Kafka was shy and seldom spoke, what he said was usually profound. Kafka was an avid reader throughout his life; together he and Brod read Plato‘s Protagoras in the original Greek, on Brod’s initiative, and Gustave Flaubert‘s L’éducation sentimentale (Sentimental Education) and La Tentation de St. Antoine (The Temptation of Saint Anthony) in French, at his own suggestion. Kafka considered Fyodor Dostoyevsky, Flaubert, Franz Grillparzer,[30] and Heinrich von Kleist to be his “true blood brothers”. Besides these, he took an interest in Czech literature and was also very fond of the works of Johann Wolfgang von Goethe.

The Power of Poetry to Humanize External Nature

Portrait of Alfred Tennyson by Julia Margaret Cameron, 1865

 
 

“…Sometimes I let a sunbeam slip,
To light her shaded eye;
A second flutter’d round her lip
Like a golden butterfly;

“A third would glimmer on her neck
To make the necklace shine;
Another slid, a sunny fleck,
From head to ankle fine,

“Then close and dark my arms I spread,
And shadow’d all her rest—
Dropt dews upon her golden head,
An acorn in her breast.

“But in a pet she started up,
And pluck’d it out, and drew
My little oakling from the cup,
And flung him in the dew.

“And yet it was a graceful gift—
I felt a pang within
As when I see the woodman lift
His axe to slay my kin…”

Lord Alfred Tennyson
The Talking Oak
(Fragment)

 
 

First published in 1842, and republished in all subsequent editions with only two slight alterations: in line 113 a mere variant in spelling, and in line 185, where in place of the present reading the editions between 1842 and 1848 read, “For, ah! the Dryad-days were brief”.

Tennyson told Mr. Aubrey de Vere that the poem was an experiment meant to test the degree in which it is in the power of poetry to humanize external nature. Tennyson might have remembered that Ovid had made the same experiment nearly two thousand years ago, while Johann Wolfgang Goethe had immediately anticipated him in his charming Der Junggeselle und der Mühlbach (The Young Apprentice and the Millstream). There was certainly no novelty in such an attempt. The poem is in parts charmingly written, but the oak is certainly “garrulously given,” and comes perilously near to tediousness.

To the Distant One

(An die Entfernte)

 
 

So have I truly lost you?
Have you, o fair one, fled from me?
Yet still I can hear in my accustomed ears
Every word, every tone of your voice.

Just as the wanderer’s gaze in the morning
Searchingly pierces the heavens in vain
When, concealed in the blue expanse
High above, the lark sings to him:

So does my gaze anxiously search here and there,
Through field and bush and forest,
Singing to you through all my songs,
O come, my darling, back to me!

Johann Wolfgang von Goethe

 
 

Goethe, Andy Warhol, 1982

Strife of Love in a Dream

“Pourquoi me réveiller, ô souffle du printemps?
Sur mon front je sens tes caresses.
Et pourtant bien proche est le temps
Des orages et des tristesses.
Demain, dans le vallon,
Se souvenant de ma gloire premiere,
Et ses yeux vainement chercheront ma splendeur:
Ils ne trouveront plus que deuil et que misere!
Helas! Pourquoi me reveiller, o souffle du printemps?

(Why do you wake me now, o sweetest breath of spring ?
On my brow I sense your most gentle caress,
Yet how soon creeps on time
Filled with tempests and with distress!
Tomorrow through the vale, the traveler will pass,
Recalling all of the glory of the past.
And in vain he will search for the bloom of my youth,
And nothing will he find but deep pain and endless sorrow.
Alas! Why do you wake me now, o sweetest breath of spring?!)

Werther
Act III

Opera by Jules Massenet to a French libretto by Édouard Blau, Paul Milliet and Georges Hartmann, based on the German epistolary novel The Sorrows of Young Werther by Johann Wolfgang von Goethe.

 
 

Dream Caused by the Flight of a Bee Around a Pomegranate a Second Before Awakening (1944)

 
 

In this “hand-painted dream photograph” — as Salvador Dalí generally called his paintings — we find a seascape of distant horizons and calm waters, perhaps Port Lligat, amidst which Gala is the subject of the scene. Next to the naked body of the sleeping woman, which levitates above a flat rock that floats above the sea, Dalí depicts two suspended droplets of water and a pomegranate, a Christian symbol of fertility and resurrection. Above the pomegranate flies a bee, an insect that traditionally symbolizes the Virgin.

In the upper left of the painting a fish bursts out of the pomegranate, and in turn spews out a tiger who then spews out another tiger and a rifle with a bayonet that will sting Gala in the arm. Above them an elephant with long flamingo legs, found in other compositions of the period such as Dalí’s The Temptations of St. Anthony, carries on its back an obelisk.

The elephant is a distorted version of the “Pulcino della Minerva” sculpture by Gian Lorenzo Bernini facing the church of Santa Maria sopra Minerva in Rome. The smaller pomegranate floating between two droplets of water may symbolize Venus, especially because of the heart-shaped shadow it casts. It may also be used as a Christian symbol of fertility and resurrection. This female symbolism may contrast with the phallic symbolism of the threatening creatures.

 
 

The Pulcino della Minerva, the famous elephant sculpture by Gian Lorenzo Bernini and Ercole Ferrata, making the base of one of Rome’s eleven Egyptian obelisks

 
 

The inspiration for the unusual composition came from Hypnerotomachia Poliphili (“Poliphilo’s Dream of the Strife of Love“), an unusual 15th century novel probably by Italian Dominic priest and monk Francesco Colonna. Scholars have also attributed the book to Leon Battista Alberti, and earlier, to Lorenzo de Medici. The novel’s main character meets an elephant made of stone carrying an obelisk, and the accompanying woodcut illustration in the book is quite similar to Bernini’s design for the base for the obelisk. The curious placement of the obelisk through the body of the elephant is identical.

 
 

The bayonet, as a symbol of the stinging bee, may thus represent the woman’s abrupt awakening from her otherwise peaceful dream. This is an example of Sigmund Freud’s influence on surrealist art and Dalí’s attempts to explore the world of dreams in a dreamscape.

The bee around the smaller pomegranate is repeated symbolically. The two tigers represent the body of the bee (yellow with black stripes) and the bayonet its stinger. The fish may represent the bee’s eyes, because of similarity of the fish’s scaly skin with the scaly complex eyes of bees.

In 1962, Dalí said his painting was intended “to express for the first time in images Freud’s discovery of the typical dream with a lengthy narrative, the consequence of the instantaneousness of a chance event which causes the sleeper to wake up. Thus, as a bar might fall on the neck of a sleeping person, causing them to wake up and for a long dream to end with the guillotine blade falling on them, the noise of the bee here provokes the sensation of the sting which will awaken Gala.” The guillotine anecdote refers to a dream reported by Alfred Maury in Le sommeil et les rêves and related by Sigmund Freud in The Interpretation of Dreams.

It has also been suggested that the painting is “a surrealist interpretation of the Theory of Evolution”.