Sunday, November 25, 2012

Michelangelo and the Literary Affliction of Self-Forgetting

Michelangelo perceived potential in a rough-hewn block of marble with its textured inclusions, nodules and veins; he envisioned the imprisoned figure within where others were blinded by a blank facade of stone. Writers also see creative possibilities in the drama of a particular time and place, or wrapped around an intriguing event; novels carved from raw material, laboriously scraped and smoothed to a state of polished perfection.

Despite Michelangelo's appellation of Il Divino ('the divine one') by contemporaries, his biographer noted that "his nature was rough and uncouth, his domestic habits incredibly squalid" which served as a singular deterrence to any pupils that might have followed him. This man, this sculptor, this architect, this poet, this engineer, was an artist of the very greatest kind. Is this not a danger to all who become utterly embroiled in their task? Is this affliction of self-forgetting, this disorder of utter absorption that comes at the expense of environmental-mindfulness, this scourge of house-hygiene, common to most engaged artists? Are they not, after all, to some degree or another, enslaved by their muse? A fiercely jealous muse, like the Greek gods of old, who would suffer no competitors?

When buried deep in a scene, when the fictional characters are whispering in my ear, when I am pungently aware of a landscape that exists only in the dark recesses of my mind...mealtimes come and go unnoticed, the ebb and flow of life swirl around in a hubbub of noise and confusion, but I am not there. I have withdrawn into myself, retreated to the shadowy depths where my Golem lives, and where a multitude of worlds await.  Today it is the dark belly of the Parisian catacombs, macabre passageways defined by the polished bones of the dead, where two men wait for me, the yellow pool of lamplight casting spectral shadows across the bone-filled walls. Tomorrow the soft golden warmth of an aristocrat's drawing room, where beautiful women in stiff brocade flirt with their fans, where men in velvet coats, white stockings and buckled shoes, cluster in groups of twos and threes. Where the underlying hum of conversation is interspersed with the tinkle of glasses, the sudden sprinkle of laughter and the lilting strains of the pianoforte. Powdered wigs turn and gossip dwindles as I sidle into the room, conspicuously ill-attired in my rumpled jeans, t-shirt, and sleep-matted hair. "The author..." I hear mutterings, a sniff of disapproval, an eyebrow raised - not all of them are entirely pleased with their literary depiction. Doubtless I am better suited to the company of my cave-dwelling Golem than the early nineteenth century Parisian aristocracy.

 According to Paolo Giovio, Michelangelo was by nature a solitary and melancholy person, bizzarro e fantastico, who "withdrew himself from the company of men." One of the qualities most admired by his contemporaries was his impassioned style, his ability to create awe-inspiring grandeur, terribilità: an intensity of expression in stone, the curl and clench of musculature, the throb and pulse of tendon all frozen in the white purity of Carrara marble. But so vividly vital beneath the mantle of ice that it seems one hot breath will restore them to blood and bone. As Michelangelo liberated his magnificent figures from their white prisons of stone, so writers conjure landscapes and  personalities from the fabric of historical accounts. Like alchemists they will take the mundane base metal of life and transmute it into a gleaming precious nugget of literary gold. The room is cluttered, the person disheveled, the laundry awaits, the dinner hour grows near...but the writer cannot quite return to the bustle of things, for a thread yet connects him to his otherworld, the lingering tendril of a thought that has not quite reached its natural conclusion, the promise of something yet unfulfilled, the lure of the literary landscapes beckons yet with all its possibilities...

8 comments:

  1. Not unlike Michelangelo, "who withdrew himself from the company of men" according to Giovio to produce his art form, perhaps writers, too (and artists for that matter) must look at this "affliction" of self-forgetting as rather a discipline that is necessary to realize the true essence of their art.

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    1. Yes, brilliant point Shari - thank you! The utter absorption is a prerequisite - I agree - I think it results in an intensity of thought that would be difficult to reproduce otherwise. Michelangelo's awe-inspiring grandeur a product of his artistic focus to the exclusion of all else.

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  2. Beautifully expressed, PJ - another home run of a post! Thank you for the utter treat of a literary musing!!!

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    1. Thank you Sarah - so pleased you enjoyed it!

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  3. A thoroughly enjoyable and well-written post PJ!

    Your characters jump out of the page and I close my eyes now and so easily picture myself in that same drawing room with the 19th century Parisian aristorcracy!

    This is the first of your posts that I have read and I eagerly look forward to the next. Thanks for sharing!!

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    1. SO lovely of you to visit Ben - thank you for your kind words of support, they are greatly appreciated indeed. I do hope you will 'visit' again! :)

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  4. Ah, yes! This describes me perfectly, too. No wonder I’ve always identified with Michelangelo. Thanks for this!

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    1. Thank you Alejandro, thrilled you enjoyed it. That utter absorption seems characteristic of many artists - and indeed, as some have pointed out, a prerequisite for creating high-quality product. An interesting thought - I am hoping not an excuse at my end for too much house-neglect! But a fine line, and of course I would always rather be writing than just about most other things - certainly house chores! :)

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