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Friday, 4 May 2007

Things on the Dark Side

Heard in a waiting room: "This? Kazuo Ishiguro.'Never Let Me Go'. Can't put it down. Very Dark. All his books are dark. Love him to bits!"
"You're into 'dark' then, are you?"
"To me, a story with no dark bits is like dinner with no garlic!"
"What does that say about you, I wonder?"

Not too much, I hope, for I, too, am a fan of Ishiguro and enjoyed "Never Let Me go" very much. "Enjoy" may not be the right word, but this is not the right place to debate it. The point of quoting that little exchange is to say that it started me thinking about the dark side as it has been explored in art and poetry - and to wonder about its prevalence.

Darkness comes in various forms and guises, though. There is the darkness of, say, Matthew Arnold's Dover Beach, which is perhaps an all-pervading pessimism of outlook. There is the fatalism of Yeats's "Two Songs of a Fool", and there is the darkness beneath the beauty of Blake's "Sick Rose" from "Songs of Innocence and Experience", in which the rose is sick because of its dark secret, its repressed sexual urges. They are illicit and hidden that should be open and shared with others.

I find my self most moved by stories of the everyday in which the dar elements are hidden and come upon you in ways which are unexpected and/or inexplicable. As Auden's "Musee des Beaux Arts" puts it:
In Breughel's Icarus, for instance: how everything turns away
Quite leisurely from the disaster; the plowman may
Have heard the splash, the forsaken cry,
But for him it was not an important failure; the sun shone
As it had to on the white legs disappearing into the green
Water; and the expensive delicate ship that must have seen
Something amazing, a boy falling out of the sky,
Had somewhere to get to and sailed calmly on.

Sylvia Plath has surely suffered from an over-concentration on what I might call the "not waving, but drowning" perception which the public has of her in general, and of the whole dynamics of her marriage, together with the overshadowing of her work by that of Ted Hughes. (Almost, she could have written the Stevie Smith poem herself.) Some of her poems may appear at first glance to be childishly simple, but such terrain can hide life's dark things as effectively as mountains can hide brigands or terrorists.

"Mary's Song" is an excellent example of the shadow in the everyday:

"The Sunday lamb cracks in its fat.
The fat
Sacrifices its opacity....

A window, holy gold.
The fire makes it precious,
The same fire

Melting the tallow heretics,
Ousting the jews."

"The Birthday Present" begins with a child's simplicity, though the vocabulary is not childish:

"What is this behind this veil, is it ugly, is it beautiful?"

but in no time at all the world we are in becomes first of all eerie and then violent:

"When I am quiet at my cooking I feel it looking, I feel it thinking"


"The world will go up in a shriek, and your head with it,"

In The Beekeepers Daughter the bees provide a world in which the threat and menace go hand-in-hand with all that is erotic, even amatory, not to say lustful. The event powering the poem is the death of her father

"The great corollas dilate, peeling back their silks,"

"A well of scents almost too dense to breathe in,"

But then:
"My heart under your foot, sister of a stone."
She uses the image of a stone frequently in her poems. Here, of course, it speaks of subjugation. more generally - and here - it speaks of being reduced to a state of inertia, almost comatose, a minimalist core perhaps. One more quote to convey the feeling of the poem:
"In these little boudoirs streaked with orange and red
The anthers nod their heads, potent as kings
To father dynasties. The air is rich.
Here is a queenship no mother can contest -"

For my painter, I have chosen Odilon Redon
Actually, there are two Redons: there is the Redon who was an admirer of artists like Corot, the Redon who created light, airy landscapes, vases of flowers and suchlike, almost an impressionist at times, and there is the Redon whose art was an exploration of dark dreams and visions, who gave us plants with animal heads, and whose picture frames were filled with dark and gloomy images executed in large part in black chalk, charcoal, pastel and gouache. For this Redon black was his "Prince of colours", and his subjects ranged from isolated figures in rocky landscapes to Biblical themes. Typical titles were "Angel in Chains", "Faust and Mephistopheles", "Apparition" and "Cactus Man".

Imagination always took precedence over observation, and there would always be a dark, velvety blackness at the heart of an image.

One important influence was his friend, the botanist, Armand Clavaud, who was pursuing theories of his concerned with the animal characteristics of plants, so we find a dwarf embedded in a tree, fused with it might be a better description ("Spirit of the Forest") or the figures of Death and Lust similarly fused in works inspired by the writings of Flaubert.

Here is what Redon himself had to say about his monsters:My monsters. I believe that it is there I have given my most personal note. I worked and studied a great deal on anatomy to arrive at the conclusion that everything is man- in every living being one finds under individual forms the lines of the human skeleton. It is with this principle in mind that I deformed, made larger or simplified an aspect of my embryonic beings. If any part of my work should last I believe that it should be my monsters.

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