Giotto and A la recherche du temps perdu

Envy, from Giotto’s Arena Chapel frescoes

To paint pictures is to live in a state of paradox. What I intend usually just points me in the direction of what I achieve, and by not achieving quite what I want, I sometimes succeed in ways I wouldn’t have imagined and may not even realize. Occasionally I invest paint with something far better than what I could have intended or predicted. In every success, there’s a bit of surprise, if not discovery. 

When you begin to realize how great paintings aren’t necessarily limited by whatever outcomes the painter desired, it dawns on you that this is how life itself works, almost invariably. All of your representations, all of your mental pictures of what matters in life fail to embody what it is you think those images represent. Try to picture anything—goodness for example—and whatever instance of goodness you imagine will fail to capture what it actually is. And, even if you lower your sights and accept the consolation prize of depicting what’s actually visible in life, even then, there’s shortfall. What you do picture to yourself as familiarly good will rarely resemble how living, new instances of goodness actually appear.

Early in Swann’s Way, Marcel Proust elaborates on a physical similarity between his cook’s pregnant kitchen-maid and one of Giotto’s figures of virtue and vice in his Paduan frescoes. It’s a little running joke between the novel’s protagonist and Swann, when he comes to visit and asks how things are going with Giotto’s Charity. As his focus shifts from the kitchen-maid to the painter, the way Proust elaborates on the Gothic painter, circling around his subject, reminds me of how Francis Bacon, in his essay on it, seems to turn the subject of Truth inside-out and then outside-in, until you are almost completely disoriented but left with a kind of Socratic doubt about your own callow assumption that you can actually know Truth. In the same way, you think you’ve understood Proust’s point and suddenly he seems to be saying just the opposite—this symbolizes X, but X is nowhere visible in the behavior depicted and yet the reality of X is embodied by it. Come again? It does make sense, but at first it feels like riding in circles on a Mobius strip. All the while he asks you to keep reconsidering what exactly is happening in Giotto’s paintings of virtue and vice—forcing you to go back and look at them. Which is both the first and last step in letting a painting do its work.

For years, I’ve considered Proust a purposely amoral novelist, someone so driven to see exactly what’s happening in human behavior and human consciousness, that he can’t stop to pass judgement on the behavior he depicts—not letting discriminations of good and evil constrain his phenomenology. Passing judgment on something gives you an excuse to ignore what you’re seeing. I’m beginning to think differently. In my third reading of this novel right now (first in college, second when the Kilmartin translation was published), I’ve delved only a hundred pages into the book, and it seems he was constantly thinking of goodness, interested in why his many of his characters found it so difficult to see and embody it. His ability to convey goodness was so fresh, so unsentimental, that it’s hard to realize what he’s doing as it happens on the page—in a way analogous to his consistent depiction of social and sexual relationships as detours that usually lead away from an authentic life. In a way similar to how I’m seeing this new dimension in Proust, this year I’ve become more and more interested in visual art that seems to be doing exactly the opposite of what I think painting and drawing should do when operating in its most innate way.  Painting that has always struck me as the most fully realized has no meaning. Any effort to extract meaning from it is, in a way, to look away from what’s actually happening in the work, the awareness it can generate, and nullify it by translating it into thought. (In the same way, the best passages of Bergotte’s writing have an impact on Proust’s narrator unrelated to their significance. In one of his book’s quietly amusing moments, Bloch advises him to read only poetry that means nothing.) What’s most powerful in a work of visual art has nothing to do with meaning: deconstructing it will get you places, but it won’t replace the looking and often gets in the way. 

Against all this, Giotto clearly intended his paintings to mean something—as did most of the great Renaissance painters, as well as scores of artists who came after them. His work signified what for Giotto were the most important things, forms of behavior that led toward and away from ultimate truth. Proust says that for a long time he (his avatar in the book) couldn’t see any evidence of Giotto’s strange genius in the reproductions of the Arena Chapel frescoes on his schoolroom wall. But as he got older he began to realize how profoundly accurate, in an allegorical way, were these images of Envy and Charity, along with the others. Aldous Huxley said that Piero’s painting, The Resurrection, was the greatest painting in the world, and it is wonderfully simple and powerful, but it seems conventional and almost predicable compared to Giotto’s visionary Envy. It’s shown as a serpent living, like an intestinal parasite, inside and outside a man’s head, slithering into the back of his skull and them emerging through his distended lips to curl back and gaze directly into his eyes, as if the cobra has charmed the man rather than the other way around. A wreath of red flames consume his feet, melting him from the ground up, like someone being burned at the stake—all of this, the blinding, the burning, with no trace of recognizably envious behavior in the figure. It’s quietly scathing, obscene, Dantesque. Giotto’s victim might as well be in a coma. To the young Proust, all of this looks about as impassioned as an illustrative plate from a Medieval manual for surgery—there is no sentiment, no familiar human emotion nor pathos in the faces, qualities which Giotto became so famous for being able to convey. This is what puzzled the young Proust: he couldn’t see any sign of the vices and virtues in the eyes, the social behavior, of the figures Giotto had painted. Where in all this is actual, envious behavior?

This is the point in Proust’s mini-essay on the painter that turns it into a nest of Chinese boxes. Open the first one and another one, this time locked, rests inside of it (and inside the smaller one, if you could pick the lock, you suspect you might find the larger one you just opened, as in a weird recursive dream.) Proust says Giotto’s figures are entirely allegorical, entirely symbolic, and yet the symbol disappears in images so physical, so strangely mundane, that you can hardly see what the image signifies in the situation it actually depicts. The symbol seems to disappear into the immediate physicality of what’s happening in the scenes. The reality made visible in these symbolic figures erases the inner emotional lives of the people themselves—they aren’t shown to be envious or charitable, but rather they are puppets of the vices and virtues, engaged in an entirely physical, specific, awkward and often bizarre pantomime. These people don’t experience the reality of what they embody. Charity stands on a hoard of worldly goods, as if to subdue it, and uses it to hike herself up a bit in order to hand her heart—her actual physical heart, seemingly with the stump of its aorta sticking out—to God. In its own way, this is actually a bit funny. It’s so matter of fact. Proust is rarely laugh-out-loud funny, but his wit and humor constantly resurface throughout the novel and glow in this passage because of the ironies in Giotto’s originality.

. . . The powerfully built housewife who is portrayed in the Arena beneath the label ‘Caritas,’ and a reproduction of whose portrait hung upon the wall of my schoolroom at Combray, incarnates that virtue, for it seems impossible, that any thought of charity can ever have found expression in her vulgar and energetic face. By a fine stroke of the painter’s invention she is tumbling all the treasures of the earth at her feet, but exactly as if she were treading grapes in a wine-press to extract their juice, or, still more, as if she had climbed on a heap of sacks to raise herself higher; and she is holding out her flaming heart to God, or shall we say ‘handing’ it to Him, exactly as a cook might hand up a corkscrew through the skylight of her underground kitchen to some one who had called down to ask her for it from the ground level above.

And, contrary to Proust’s assertion, you have to give her credit for actually being so visibly charitable that she doesn’t even say, “I’m going to need that back very shortly” as she passes this workaday pump up to street level. If Giotto were a contemporary film-maker, the muscle in her hand would still be contracting. Giotto seems to be implying that if there is any Truth worth conveying, it isn’t conceptual, it isn’t disembodied, it doesn’t reside in the consciousness of those who serve it or who want to see a symbol manifest it—it isn’t something that can be reduced to thought—but is incarnated in human activities through time, just as these virtues show themselves in the strangest way, through the behavior of figures who don’t even feel the emotions one would expect of them and don’t seem to understand that they are icons of virtue or corruption. They aren’t even aware of what they embody—as, in a more literal sense, people aren’t entirely aware of the full reality of what they are doing as they do it. And this is suddenly where this passage gives the reader a glimpse of the crux of Proust’s entire project: the hope that art can offer a hint of the whole when all the human mind can grasp are the parts of life, of individual identify, of being itself.

This is where Proust’s reading of Giotto becomes thoroughly Proustian: the symbol disappears into the experience, the Truth merges with the behavior that upholds it, in such a way that these people can only live it, unaware. We all live in this darkness, this fragmented and warped ability to understand who we are and what we’re doing. This is Proust’s fundamental insight: that none of us can know ourselves in a complete way, at any given moment, except on rare occasions through spiritual insight or through art or, in Proust, a kind of spontaneous memory categorically different form the recollection we rely on to survive.

. . . That Charity devoid of Charity, that Envy who looked like nothing so much as a plate from some medieval book, illustrating the compression of the glotis or the uvula by a tumor of the tongue or by the introduction of the operator’s instrument, a Justice whose grayish and meanly regular features were identical with those which characterized the faces of certain pious, desiccated ladies of Combray whom I used to see at mass and many of whom had long been enrolled in the reserve forces of Injustice. <Again Proust’s quiet, subtle wit.> But in later years, I came to understand that the arresting strangeness, the special beauty of these frescoes derived from the great part played in them by symbolism, and the fact that this was represented not as a symbol (for the thought symbolized was nowhere expressed) but as a reality, actually felt or materially handled, added something more precise and more literal to the meaning of the work, something more concrete and more striking to the lesson it imparted. . . . and in the same way, again, are not the thoughts of the dying often turned towards the practical, painful, obscure, visceral aspect, towards that ‘seamy side” of death which is, as it happens, that side that death actually presents to them and forces them to feel, and which far more closely resembles a crushing burden, a difficulty in breathing, a destroying thirst, than the abstract idea to which we are accustomed to give the name of Death?

Having been at my father’s side this past summer when he died, I know that Proust understands the actual reality of death. He describes it perfectly. It is hard, punishing labor for the dying and everyone else nearby. What Giotto paints is a physical correlative to a spiritual state: the dizziness of Inconstancy depicted as a woman levitating off the ground and tipping backward in space, floating like a balloon, rootless and on the verge of whirling away in the breeze. (Proust’s appreciation for this symbolic power, for Giotto’s achievement, has little to do with what he was trying to achieve himself in his novel, which was anti-conceptual, anti-symbolic, almost entirely sensual and immediate, where the greatest glimpses of the truth he was chasing arose from seemingly random sensory experience. Which is, for me as well, where painting’s greatest power resides.) Instead, as Charity itself, a woman has physically excised her own heart and is handing it up to a cherub reaching down from the ceiling. In reality, it’s fairly simple to turn this into a bland concept: give your heart to something greater than yourself. In his matter-of-fact way Giotto depicts something almost bizarre with all the weight of ordinary human activity. What you see is awkward, unlovely effort, not the loving, caring gift-giving of some favored, saintly icon of compassion. What’s here seems more in the vicinity of a bizarre anatomical nightmare.

Proust concludes with a passage that proves his psychological novel was a profoundly moral effort and points toward the need for art as a way of glimpsing what’s actually there in human behavior and experience, hidden and inaccessible in the moment—but fleetingly manifest in the best art. The wisdom and moral depth of Proust’s sentences here, at the end of his passage on Giotto, are stunningly eloquent:

There must have been a strong element of reality in those Virtues and Vices of Padua, since they appeared to me to be as alive as the pregnant servant girl, while she herself seemed scarcely less allegorical than they. And quite possibly, this lack (or seeming lack) of participation by a person’s soul in virtue of which he or she is the agent has, apart from its aesthetic meaning, a reality which, if not strictly psychological, may at least be called physiognomical. Since then, whenever in the course of my life I have come across, in convents for instance, truly saintly embodiments of practical charity, they have generally had the cheerful, practical, brusque and unemotional air of a busy surgeon, the sort of face in which once can discern no commiseration, no tenderness at the sight of suffering humanity, no fear of hurting it, the impassive, unsympathetic, sublime face of true goodness.



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