The Devil’s in the Portrait

I have been enjoying — very much — reading a variety of works about portraiture (but who has time with a newborn baby?!).  My intention has been to write a series of posts about this theme in literature.

While reading, however, I wanted to pause and address a thread from a past series of mine: the devil in literature.  I find, not surprisingly, that there are many intersections between the portrait and the devil in the texts I have read.

One of these, in particular, feels most fundamental to a study of the devil in portrait: Nikolai Gogol’s “The Mysterious Portrait.”  Gogol hinges his short story upon many almost-universal topoi, found in related works such as Wilde’s The Picture of Dorian Gray, Balzac’s “The Unfinished Masterpiece,” Poe’s “The Oval Portrait,” Hawthorne’s The House of the Seven Gables, Stevenson’s “Markheim,” and even Faulkner’s “Evangeline” (to only name a small handful that come to mind).

The first topic that struck me in reading about the portrait in literature is that the beauty of the portrait is that an author/artist can project how the subject wants to look or how he views the subject, and not necessarily how that subject did look. (That has always been why one of my favorite rooms at the Museum of Fine Arts is the early American portraits.) This adds layers to a tale, complicating the status of reality, opening the door, of course, to the supernatural.

Gogol easily invokes the supernatural in the opening scene of “The Mysterious Portrait” as the young “artist of talent” Tchartkoff finds a rare work among other “monstrosities in the shape of pictures” in a shop that “belongs rather to a manufacturing automaton than to a man.”  Already, the stage is set.  Tchartkoff finds himself attracted to a dirty portrait of:

an old man, with a thin, bronzed face and high cheek-bones; the features seemingly depicted in a moment of convulsive agitation. He wore a flowing Asiatic costume. Dusty and defaced as the portrait was, Tchartkoff saw, when he had succeeded in removing the dirt from the face, traces of the work of a great artist. The portrait appeared to be unfinished, but the power of the handling was striking. The eyes were the most remarkable picture of all: it seemed as though the full power of the artist’s brush had been lavished upon them. They fairly gazed out of the portrait, destroying its harmony with their strange liveliness.

We all know, without further ado, exactly what this means.  It means that, like the poor weapon expert Cosmo von Wehrstahl in MacDonald’s Phantastes who is drawn to buy an old mirror that he can’t afford and finds the soul of a woman trapped inside it, Gogol’s protagonist comes face to face with the temptation of what he wants most.  For Tchartkoff, this is money and fame.  He buys the wayward painting because he falls in love with it, its undeniable expression of talent and of something else: its evocation of the feminine diabolical. What makes this devil — like so many devils before and after it in literature — “feminine” is its Asiatic garb: an aesthetic that Gogol does not want his readers to overlook.  Edward Said would have a lot to say about that.  And so do I, but that is for a longer piece.

Gogol’s portrait of the Asiatic devil has eyes like those in the portrait of John Melmoth’s namesake in Maturin’s Melmoth the Wanderer.  They are alive. Burn the portrait as he may, Melmoth cannot rid himself of that ubiquitous traveler and his temptations. Similarly, despite the artist’s nephew’s attempt to purchase the portrait and burn it after Tchartkoff dies, someone steals it from the auction; the devil lives on. His soul has been captured in the painting of his eyes.

Just as Culwin is haunted by the eyes of Alice Newell in Wharton’s short story “The Eyes,” Tchartkoff is haunted by “the two terrible eyes” which fix upon his face; “‘It looks with human eyes!'” he exclaims.  The eyes torment the young artist to such an extent that he suffers from a series of dreams-within-dreams in which he is never sure if he is awake or sleeping.  (Again, Gogol’s story could serve as the prototype for nineteenth-century topoi — this time, the “dream-within-a-dream” fascination exemplified by authors such as Poe,  Mallarme, Baudelaire, Shelley, or Grillparzer.)

Tchartkoff’s dream becomes reality as the dead man rises from the grave, jumps out from the painting, and fondles his roll of gold which, of course, makes the poor artist salivate.  The artist fantasizes about his life with that gold.  Lo! and Behold! the roll falls to the floor as the distracted devil finds his way back into the frame.  With the money from the devil Tchartkoff buys and writes himself an advertisement in the newspaper boasting of his talents (Geoffrey Tempest contemplates doing a similar thing in Corelli’s The Sorrows of Satan). An aristocratic woman appears on his doorstep with her sallow, sickly daughter.  For the first time, Tchartkoff is asked to used his brush to lie.  The mother wants her daughter portrayed as robust and healthy: a very Psyche.  Tchartkoff weighs the options.

He lies with his art.  The devil has won.

Tchartkoff goes on to live a life of wealth and unhappiness.  Unhappiness leads to paranoia.  Paranoia leads to madness.  Madness leads to death when he makes a final, futile attempt to reclaim his forgotten real talents.  He dies while milking his last drop of blood to create a genuine piece of art.

In Part II of the tale Gogol reveals how the portrait came to be.  A talented artist was petitioned to paint a strange dying man’s portrait in the days before drawing his last breath.  The artist developed reservations when coming to terms with his subject’s eyes.  After painting them, he realized their supernatural powers — he refused to paint more.  No problem; the damage was already done.  The devil had been immortalized.  The poor artist was haunted by demons until he finally, many years later, created an angelic work inspired by Jesus and redeemed himself.  To save the rest of his family, the portrait must be found and burned.  No, never!

The portrait, like the devil, lives on.


Mysticism in Woolf’s Waves

Virginia Woolf perhaps does, as Walter Allen suggests, look to art to make order from chaos, substituting art for religion with the “mystic’s intuition.” Allen bestows Woolf with the agency of a mystic, assuming that intrinsic intuition is the medium from which her art is wrought. Definitively, a mystical visionary strives to bring the human experience of the phenomenological world to a place painfully out of reach for even (and maybe especially) the most outstretched finger. Mysticism, as an act of self-surrender, aims to uncover truths that lie beyond the human scope or ordinary experience. Mystical writers, like W.B. Yeats, for example, strive to illustrate the shortcomings of the human consciousness by actively undermining language in a medium that relies upon language to communicate. To transcend the earthly ties of language a mystical writer may emphasize style – the form – as the mystic’s tool: the mind’s eye, not the mind’s mouth.

Yeats’s poetry, for example, often centers on the complications of the ego as it attempts to surrender the “self” by stalking through uncertainty and cosmic darkness. In “Man and the Echo,” Man seeks absolution, acknowledgment, and reassurance in his quest for happiness by attempting to uphold language as spectacular (as spectacle). Man struggles to establish an elite identity by showing his relationship with/to words, trying to prove that his use of language manifests a kind of reality; “Did words of mine put too great strain/On that woman’s reeling brain?/Could my spoken words have checked/That whereby a house lay wrecked?”

In the poem Echo responds with terse repetitious phrases to Man’s paroxysms: “Lie down and die,” she says. For Yeats the nemesis of ego is death and old age.  However, there are other sponges by which ego becomes absorbed. “Meditations in Time of Civil War” shows both the constructed, artificial world (“rich man’s flowering lawns,” “a grey stone fireplace,” “my house,” “my table”) and the natural world (“the bees,” “the mother birds,” “white glimmering fragments of the mist”) as obfuscating forces to the identity of a once “growing boy.” Yeats juggles ego with the sublime or the beautiful so consciousness is negotiated – it is beyond language.

If Woolf creates art through the mystic’s intuition then she, like Yeats, should illustrate a sacrifice of ego in her texts which amounts to an absorption of consciousness into something more obscure and perhaps more significant. In The Waves Woolf juxtaposes consciousness with the natural flux of the ocean tide. She initially establishes six individual ego systems, shown through six different characters, to blur the boundary between self and other. The narratives of Bernard, Susan, Rhoda, Neville, Jinny, and Louis begin in youth where they as characters and we as readers struggle to establish their identity. Woolf mocks both her characters’ and her readers’ desire to distinguish one consciousness from another. She posits that we/they cannot count on language to define an ego. Yet by allowing each character her own set of qualities, Woolf invites the illusion that individual human consciousness is possible.

Each character does seem to possess unique markings. Bernard is easily identifiable by his phraseology and reliance on language; “I require the concrete in everything.  It is so only that I lay hands upon the world. A good phrase, however, seems to me to have an independent existence.  Yet I think it is likely that the best are made in solitude.” While he seems stalwart in the belief that he possesses an individual, separate consciousness from the other characters, there are moments in which he is able to transcend this ideology. Bernard mentions, “I am only superficially represented by what I was saying tonight,” and “the truth is that I need the stimulus of other people. Alone, over my dead fire, I tend to see the thin places in my own stories.” Bernard has moments of epiphany, like these, that transform the representations of his individual consciousness into a lie. He remains unaware of using other characters’ linguistic refrains in his own language. When he uses the word “hoarder,” for example, he is unaware of both Susan’s and Jinny’s reference to their hoards. Similar to Bernard, when Louis “tore the date from the calendar” he makes no reference to Susan’s antics of tearing calendars in her youth. Each character believes that his actions or thoughts belong to himself.

At some point in the novel all six characters embrace Bernard’s utterance that “I am one person — myself.” But these collective thoughts are complicated by Rhoda’s obsessive identification with the vanishing, nonexistent, or merged self. Bernard later reflects Rhoda’s philosophizing when observes that “to be myself (I note) I need the illumination of other people’s eyes, and therefore cannot be entirely sure what is my self.” Bernard, perhaps, changes more than any other character in The Waves, as his movement from one extreme to another shows his attempt to embody ideology (as Byron in particular), individuality (as himself), universality (as everyone else), and his failure in each of these endeavors. Woolf chooses Bernard to house all other characters’ conscious experiences by the conclusion, giving the impression that he has reached the highest plane of truth. He has recognized other’s consciousness, he has deconstructed his own, and he has built an empire of language and torn it down again. In this way, Bernard showcases Woolf’s use of the mystic’s tool. As in Yeats’s poetry, Bernard’s final narration is a motion to negate ego.

The similarities, however, end there.

Bernard shelves the egos of others and discovers the contradictions of his own ego in this way. He finds his voice amidst other human voices. Ego becomes dissolved by ego. Woolf ironically leaves the phenomenological element of “other” right outside Bernard’s door, but he fails to recognize it. His consideration of the waves, which symbolize an ultimate surrender of ego and consciousness, amounts to a mere acknowledgment without understanding, an aesthetic observation; “But for a moment I had sat on the turf somewhere high above the flow of the sea […and had seen] the waves breaking.” An old nurse tells Bernard, “‘Look. This is the truth,” but his narration continues to use language in the same form. Despite the waves outside his window he fails to move beyond this collective – shelved – consciousness which persists in taking the ego as foundation.  Even his last apostrophe, “O Death!” arises from an extensive linguistic and egocentric remembrance of the past. In this way Woolf, unlike Yeats, does not use the tool of the mystic’s intuition to create art, as Walter Allen suggests, but rather to reaffirm the stronghold of an intelligible world: a reality shaped by the intersecting voices of history, perception, experience, and nature. Bernard’s louder voice is that of the solo white male.

Songs of Searching

William Blake, in many ways, polarizes innocence and experience in his book of poems Songs of Innocence and of Experience.  His exploration of these are literally separated by a frontispiece and title page.  Moreover, he marks the primary differences between innocence and experience by showing the evolution of poems — “Infant Joy” in the first half becomes “Infant Sorrow” in the second, for example.

For Blake, there is, I think, a too-clean cut between the states of innocence and of experience.  But then again, such dichotomy reflects the nature of each enterprise well.  Innocence is an extremely isolated state, as it is pure and even natural (if you’re a Romantic).  Experience, on the other hand, is dredged in the muck of “reality:” labor, questions of faith, and urbanization.

What strikes me most as I read Songs is Blake’s moderate suggestion that innocence and experience should be considered as separate but also inseparable.  They are, like husband and wife, clearly bound to each other. A colleague of mine argued that they are actually the same thing (based on his analysis of Blake’s “call and answer” style — I was very nearly convinced but refuse to be completely convinced about anything).

Experience comes from innocence.

But can innocence come from experience?

The voice of almost every poem in Songs is one of searching for a leader.  The chosen leader, however, appears to be one that brings the child — literal and figurative — out of innocence and into experience.  As the last plate (sometimes considered the penultimate plate) relays: we, readers, have followed leaders who “wish to lead others when they should be led.”

In “The Little Boy Lost,” the child searches for his “father” who can’t be found.  He is led, instead, to his mother in “The Little Boy Found.”  But does she lead him astray?

Is the missing “father” and substitute mother what leads the child to the Tygers and, as a result, toward experience?