Monday, May 29, 2006

The romantic skellington

I'm done with a new large piece, which I will post on my site soon. This is an odd piece for me: it's got a person in it and a skeleton- two new characters for me, at least in painting: I've been drawing skeletons and people in ink for a long time now, and I have been doing skellington watercolors all spring.

I'm calling them skellingtons for some reason that I imagine will come to me in a year or two from now when I reread something I've forgotten. I think I picked it up from Dickens. The internet tells me that there is a Tim Burton character called Jack Skellington, but that's news to me - when I think "skellington" I see it in spelled out, letter by letter, in whatever font Penguin press uses for its classic paperbacks. It's stuck in my head, and the word rings in my skull as I'm painting in a fiddly nose hole or eye socket with my watercolors.

More diligent searching online turns up this quote from the Pickwick Papers.

"Your servant, sir. Proud o’ the title, as the Living Skellington said, ven they show’d him."
"[H]e’s the wictum o’ connubiality, as Blue Beard’s domestic chaplain said, with a tear of pity, ven he buried him."
"Wotever is, is right, as the young noblemen sveetly remarked ven they put him down in the pension list ’cos his mother’s uncle’s wife’s grandfather vunce lit the king’s pipe with a portable tinder-box."

It takes a little rereading to get the sense of it, but it's pure Dickens.

Dickens is a hero of mine. Which sounds pretentious to me as I write it, because who - at least who among those who have read David Copperfield and heard Mr. Micawber call out a "Heep of Infamy" - does NOT have Dickens as a hero? Having Dickens as a hero is so ordinary that it's like admitting that Jesus is one's personal savior. If one has a personal savior, who else would it be? Ones eyes glaze over at the very words. It's like telling someone you like cake. Thom and I used to play a game of trying to have the most boring possible conversations: we would invariably end up extolling the virtues of toast and rolling around laughing at ouselves.

There is considerable cultural incentive to pretend that ones' hero is someone far more obscure that Charles Dickens. Were I younger and more insecure I might pretend Arjun Appadurai was my hero, or Oleg Grabbar, or, for that matter Florine Stettheimer. The problem is that I'm not all that young and I just don't care- Dickens is a genius, and he's a genius who wrote in such a relentlessly accessible way that he falls out of favor with academics fairly regularly. I have the demented conviction that one could make a graph of when Dickens was and wasn't in favor and that it would correspond to the rise of dangerous political convictions. Dickens made his career showing people how not to be elitist without sacrificing their minds: it's possible to read David Copperfield as a treatise on the subject, if one can get away from that line about Uriah Heep.

The thing that is both right and very wrong with Dickens is that he's a romantic. This can get annoying, as when the dying wife of David Copperfield tells him to go marry the Other Woman, but it's what keeps him absolutely stringent about making the reader care about people from every social class. He doesn't make everyone noble and likeable- the characters that are those things are often the least interesting characters in the books- but he scatters the round and flat characters throughout the world as he sees it. If he were writing today, there'd be the good soccer mom and the bad humanitarian, as well as the noble prom queen, the good president and the evil Green Party candidate. He's disorienting, and he encourages one to be disoriented oneself.

He's appealing in the same way Jane Austen is because he proposes a difference between what you think and what you say. One can think Mr. Micawber is hilarious, and save up the funny things he says to tell a trusted friend, but one can't make him feel ridiculous, or say he is. It's a morally driven universe, and it asks the reader to extend the freedom of their intellect as far as they want without losing sight of the fact that while all characters are definitely not created equal, there are no reliable guideposts to read by except those common, boring values like good hearts and kindness.

That's what I mean by being a romantic. There's somthing revolutionary about asserting something boring, or common, instead of something interesting but wrong. Painting skeletons- even while calling them skellingtons in my head, demands a certain romanticism. The allegory of death is by nature romantic, because the symbolic depiction of death is a luxury. It feels transgressive to paint skeletons in a way that doing grim pictures of diseased corpses wouldn't be. If I was doing that kind of art I could claim the luxury of truth instead of the wholly fictional construct of the skeleton. Which is a symbol we're all more familiar with from Halloween than from anything else, fat luxurious bastards that we are. But being blunt about death strikes me as somehow anti-romantic too. Isn't it romantic to assume that we all would rather face the truth than a decorative metaphor? To assume that facing that kind of truth in art makes us better people anyways? I have seen hideous photos of corpses done by an artist that I found very impressive when I knew her, and I remember that the pictures made me nearly ill, but I'm not sure that that experience was particularly valuable. We all, after all, get there, and in the meantime- what? Fiction, I guess.

I'm going to keep working with the skeleton as long as I can stand it, playing out this impulse come hell or high water, letting the blank page of the skeleton stand for death as broadly and metaphorically as possible until I'm sick of it. Because as I was painting this intensely Victorian looking, decorative, romantic painting today I thought, "Isn't it romantic to say one is not romantic?" I think it might be.

Woodcut from ‘Hortus Sanitatis’, (‘Garden of Health’), printed by Johann Pruss in Strasbourg in 1497

David Bailly
Dutch, 1584-1657

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