A rich inheritance

The enabler (Dr Jacques Pienaar) © Samantha Groenestyn (oil on linen)

The enabler (Dr Jacques Pienaar) © Samantha Groenestyn (oil on linen)

It is, of course, extremely unpopular to paint the way that I do—representational pictures, ‘stuff that looks like stuff,’ images thoroughly stripped of their purpose by the speed and apparent accuracy of photography. Though I’m finding pockets of representational painters around the world, we are undeniably on the periphery, and perhaps rightfully so. Different demands are made of art now, and art must adapt accordingly. I cling to what I do because it is the most satisfying thing I know to do, and because the roots of it run deep and strong all the way back through our Greek heritage, a heritage of which I’m proud and a willing inheritor. I see this akin to a respect for our philosophical tradition and its Platonic genesis. This is where we have come from; this Greek impulse is part of our cultural and intellectual makeup.

Enabler (composition study)

Enabler (composition study)

And the Greeks, as Gombrich points out in a chapter on ‘Reflections on the Greek revolution,’ may be credited with a truly remarkable deviation. ‘There are few more exciting spectacles in the whole history of art than the great awakening of Greek sculpture and painting between the sixth century and the time of Plato’s youth toward the end of the fifth century B.C,’ he (1959: 99) writes with palpable enthusiasm. It is no coincidence that at the very time Plato was penning his timeless philosophical observations, Greek artists were asking new questions of the physical world and expressing wholly new observations of it in their work. Plato himself challenged this frighteningly unbridled power art was summoning, famously equating illusion with delusion, for this revolution unfolded during his own lifetime.

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For until the Greeks invented mimesis—the attempt to ‘match’ the visible world, which Gombrich (1959: 99) contrasts with the more widespread and primitive impulse simply to ‘make’—equally impressive civilisations were demanding something wholly different from art. The Egyptians, the Mesopotamians and the Minoans were concerned with a fixed, eternal art. Uninterested in particulars, their art rather ‘held out a promise that its power to arrest and to preserve in lucid images might be used to conquer’ the ‘irretrievable evanescence of human life’ (Gombrich 1959: 107-8). Keats expresses the deliciousness of such a timeless power in his ‘Ode on a Grecian urn’:

‘Fair youth, beneath the trees, thou canst not leave
Thy song, nor ever can those trees be bare;
Bold Lover, never, never canst thou kiss,
Though winning near the goal—yet, do not grieve;
She cannot fade, though thou hast not thy bliss,
For ever wilt thou love, and she be fair!

Ah, happy, happy boughs! That cannot shed
Your leaves, nor ever bid the Spring adieu.’

And, indeed, such ritualistic art never lost its attraction. ‘In the time of Augustus,’ Gombrich (1959: 124) notes, ‘there are already signs of a reversal of taste toward earlier modes of art and an admiration of the mysterious shapes of the Egyptian tradition.’ The middle ages, rather than a period of decadence and darkness, might be seen as a time of reaffirmation of this powerful mode of art. Clear, schematised, generalised, symbolic motifs executed with primitive clarity work a sort of magic that is difficult to resist. Gombrich (1959: 124) argues that it is misleading to describe art’s history in terms of progress or decline, and considers the Greek ‘revolution’ a true innovation, a notable break in the story, but he argues that the reclamation of schematic art ought not ‘be interpreted as a fresh revolution in favour of new ideals. What happened here looks much more like another process of natural selection, not a directed effort by a band of pioneers, but the survival of the fittest; in other words, the adaptation of the formulas to the new demands of imperial ceremony and divine revelation. In the course of this adaptation, the achievements of Greek illusionism were gradually discarded.’ Artists overwhelmingly produced what they were required to.

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The appeal of such ‘conceptual art,’ as Gombrich classifies it—and this arguably applies equally to the reductive abstract art of our own time and more recent history—is not difficult to account for. ‘What is normal to man and child all over the globe is the reliance on schemata, on what is called ‘conceptual art’ (1959: 101). The art which today holds sway appeals to universals, to the general, to broad human experiences in an amusingly primitive way. ‘With the beholder’s questioning of the image, the artist’s questioning of nature stopped’ (1959: 124). It is the Greeks alone who have demanded something altogether different of the image: ‘[Egyptologist Heinrich] Schäfer stressed that the ‘corrections’ introduced by the Greek artist in order to ‘match’ appearances are quite unique in the history of art. Far from being a natural procedure, they are the great exception’ (Gombrich 1959: 101).

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The nude is central to the Greek tradition, and has survived in western art even until our own time. Yet I am not clear on what its role should now be, stripped of its Greek philosophies of embodied ideas, of godlike perfection in supple human form. The role of the nude has changed dramatically since its invention by the Greeks. As Clark (1985: 337) writes, the workshops of the middle ages which trained artisans—manual workers—gradually gave way to academies which urged more intellectual pursuits. ‘When this old discipline of grinding colours, sizing panels and copying approved models was removed … what new discipline took its place? Drawing from the nude, drawing from the Antique and perspective.’ The nude became inextricably linked with cleverness in art, with intellectual abstractions (Clark 1985: 337-8):

‘Instead of the late Gothic naturalism based on experience, [drawing from the nude] offers ideal form and ideal space, two intellectual abstractions. Art is justified, as man is justified, by the faculty of forming ideas; and the nude makes its first appearance in art theory at the very moment when painters begin to claim that their art is an intellectual, not a mechanical activity.’

The Greeks made an unprecedented leap in grasping after mimesis, in matching their observations. But as Gombrich (1959: 121) argues, ‘we mistake the character of this skill if we speak of the imitation of nature. Nature cannot be imitated or ‘transcribed’ without first being taken apart and put together again. This is not the work of observation alone but rather of ceaseless experimentation.’ Here the Italians emerge, smug in their mastery over nature, with their newly intellectualised painting, built around the worship of the nude: ‘there is no doubt that the Florentines valued a demonstration of anatomical knowledge simply because it was knowledge and as such of a higher order than ordinary perception’ (Clark 1985: 340).

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The nude persisted throughout the twentieth century, but she was shamefully ravaged. The fact that the nude became almost exclusively female is significant, and Clark (1985: 343) links this change to the Florentine pride in knowledge. ‘No doubt this is connected with a declining interest in anatomy (for the écorché figure is always male) and so is part of that prolonged episode in the history of art in which the intellectual analysis of parts dissolves before a sensuous perception of totalities.’ Art, of course, grew in its intellectual aspirations, forced its way (perhaps unjustifiably) into the universities, and discarded anything tainted by technique, scrambling instead after a pitiable faux-philosophy, loosely held together by sensual feminine curves.

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What are we to make of the nude and of mimesis in our own time? Can we turn back to our cultural origins and embrace the Greek intent? This feels false in the wake of Christianity and its accompanying shame for our bodies, our gothic repulsion to the human form, our appetite for punishment and decay. And there is something surprisingly appealing in the ruthlessly grotesque German representations that Greek perfection never touches. The Judeo-Christian tradition is equally a part of our cultural fabric and our western attitudes. Perhaps, then, the nude is a private and academic exercise, and once mastered it serves only as a support to our other representational endeavours. Perhaps the interest in the nude that has resurfaced in the modern ateliers is a propitious start, but is not justified in being considered art. Ryan has spoken warily of the present-day ‘cult of the student:’ the misdirected celebration of studio nudes as ends in themselves. I’m inclined to agree.

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Certainly, the Greeks began something wholly European, a complete anomaly in the story of art. Our thoughts, our perception are unavoidably influenced by their invention. I will be so bold as to say there is something worthwhile in this, something worth preserving and carrying forward. Something beyond the schematic, conceptual art that even children are capable of, that every other culture has independently produced. ‘What most of us lack in order to be artists,’ argues Dewey (1934: 75), ‘is not the inceptive emotion, nor yet merely technical skill in execution. It is capacity to work a vague idea and emotion over into terms of some definite medium.’ Far from teaching us how to be human cameras, the Greeks taught us how to override the schematisation and simplification our brains naturally strive for and gave us an intelligent way to think with our hands. And I have no desire to abandon such a rich inheritance.

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Clark, Kenneth. 1985 [1956]. The nude: A study of ideal art. Penguin: London.

Dewey, John. 1934. Art as experience. Minton, Malch & Company: New York.

Gombrich, E. H. 1959. Art and Illusion: A study in the psychology of pictorial representation. Phaidon: London.

Keats, John. 2006. Selected poems. Ed. Deborah West. Oxford University: Oxford.

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Stick us right in the heart

Avenue (Bulimba) © Samantha Groenestyn -- a little oil sketch from a landscaping adventure in Brisbane

Avenue (Bulimba) © Samantha Groenestyn — a little oil sketch from a landscaping adventure in Brisbane

I recently read Bulgakov’s frenetic tale The Master and Margarita, and was struck most of all by how Bulgakov’s appeal to our integral Western myths proved so powerful in this story. All lightheartedness, frivolity and anti-heroes aside, the story toys with the reader’s clinging to our foundational myths, and, having been raised staunchly Christian, I found it unsettling and amazingly provocative. Bulgakov short-circuits my expectations in the story and because those expectations are built on such deeply-rooted characters and events, the effect is very confronting. The story drops a lot of little hellish jokes, interjections of ‘what the devil!’ in place of any ‘oh my God,’ but more than this, it takes the character of the devil himself and does only what Christianity suggests that he does in making him take the guise of someone appealing offering only things that human beings, easily amused creatures that we are, want. And then it conflates this playful devil with a benevolent, peace-giving power that acts discerningly and justly, not rewarding indiscriminately, not forgiving, but recognising the intentions of all and repaying the most courageous. An anti-Christianity, in a sense, that tests all, but heaps punishment on the weak, and applauds the strong.

Bulgakov

‘It’s the speed I like,’ said Margarita excitedly, ‘the speed and the nakedness. Like a shot from a Mauser—bang!’

Any simple sympathy with Christianity will make one bristle a little at this idea—the injustice of mocking the weak, of anything positive coming from the hand of the devil. And this is just the literary power of this book. Something is ingrained in us, some moral sense that has been taught to us through our stories, through our punishment and reward mechanisms, something about ideas of innocence and meekness. Even if straying from the explicit biblical narratives doesn’t bother us, perhaps because we lack a real familiarity with them, diverting the currents of the underlying themes probably still affects us in a profound way.

While the Greek myths in paintings are less accessible to me just because of my limited acquaintance with them, Western culture owes a huge debt to our ancient Greek heritage, including the philosophies that we continue to draw on. Similarly, the Judeo-Christian tradition has built a lasting foundation for our thought, and its imagery has persisted in Western art for centuries. If our earlier art has anything over modern art, it’s that it returned again and again to the unending font of imagery that the Greek and Judeo-Christian traditions have provided us with, meaning the artist had the power to bestow an instant and deeply profound visual impression on the (often illiterate) viewer. The modern artist, if making self-directed, largely autobiographical art, has to work harder to make such a profound impact, and has to provide so much background detail, probably through words, to convey anything so dramatic. My point is this: our myths give us a language, a system of ideas, even a set of symbols that act as shortcuts in our brains, letting us tap into bigger concepts with only subtle nuances. And, further, we can not only take short cuts, but perhaps even, like Bulgakov, short-circuit that existing framework and challenge it in a way that Vatican-employed painters of the past were not at liberty to do.

Nella morte avvinti (In death thrall) © Roberto Ferri

Nella morte avvinti (In death thrall) © Roberto Ferri

Italian painter Roberto Ferri comes to mind—his spectacularly rendered nudes curl their superhuman forms through gorgeous forestscapes, dripping red draperies, and his paintings unmistakably echo old master paintings in form and content. Religious themes and mythological creatures bring a solemn heaviness to his work. But there is no anachronism here: Ferri’s paintings all bear the stamp of the present age in his manipulation of that age-old subject matter. Nudes are not discreet church nudes with modest drapery and strategic foliage; rather they bare their genitalia in all their sexual glory. And the seemingly ideal human forms distort into fleshy mutations, or are gorily impaled, in the visually explicit way we have adjusted ourselves to in other media. Saints and goddesses and hybrid creatures abound, but they are never trite, nor nostalgic, nor antiquated. Our traditional ideas, rather, are subjected to modern thought and to modern eyes in an extremely provocative and powerful way. The violence is palpable.

American painter Jerome Witkin has a series called A Jesus for our time which likewise rehearses a familiar theme; he clothes his well-intentioned but ultimately fragile saint in a white suit and amplifies him and surrounds him with the dazzle and noise of an electric wonderland, before depicting his shattering end. The paintings speak to so much of what we know and what we expect from a Christ character, and there is something strangely appealing in the Jagger-esque prophet Jimmy. This character triggers so many of our hopes for the world, and Witkin reaches right inside us to grab that vein and wire us in to his parable of the modern world. This is not simple symbolism and substitution of modern-day paraphernalia. Witkin really pushes this myth and distorts it in a deeply disturbing and affecting way. Witkin (p. 53-4) himself said of this series that he wanted to appeal to ‘the sense of struggle; a mythic hero who is … beaten down by the world, yet still believing in a guide.’ He comments (p. 54), ‘There’s no real church art in our century; heroes are hard to find.’

A Jesus for our time, panel II - Jimmy's mission to Beirut (late afternoon) © Jerome Witkin

A Jesus for our time, panel II – Jimmy’s mission to Beirut (late afternoon) © Jerome Witkin

American writer Kurt Vonnegut put forward the idea, many decades ago, that the shapes of stories could be plotted as graphs and thereby categorised. He describes simple waves like ‘man in a hole’ and ‘boy meets girl,’ where a character gets into a mess and finds a way out, and where a character gets something they prize, devastatingly loses it, and fights to get it back. ‘People love that story,’ he quips—‘every time that story gets told, someone makes a million dollars.’ The story shape that most fascinated him, though, was the one that incrementally lifts a character out of a miry pit, dashes all their hopes, and at the last minute rewards them, usually by sudden and supernatural means, with off-the-charts improbable happiness—a story shape shared by both Cinderella and the New Testament. Telling, no?

I’m reminded of Alain de Botton’s insight that the news—intentionally factual, though tauntingly drip-feeding us snippets of horror in a steady twenty-four hour stream—brings us to the brink of these complex and important emotions, but gives us no way to resolve them. Our myths are often dark, confronting, and pitching good and evil forces, or blurring those moral delineations, and delving into familiar tragic territory. But as de Botton is careful to distinguish, where horror pierces us and leaves us hanging, tragedy seeks a resolution. Awful things happen to ordinary people, and the only thing that separates us from the antihero is pure chance. Tragedy helps us comprehend the darkness in the world by tracing it back to ordinary creatures, not monsters, and walks us in their ill-fated shoes. Through stories—written or painted—we can confront these deep and difficult emotions and moral questions and perhaps even come out on the other side a little wiser.

Our myths are not obsolete, and not a cheap trick. They stick us right in the heart, but only because they get at the heart of things that matter to us. They give us a way to get instantly intimate with our audience, and after that it’s up to us to try to take our audience across that emotional bridge, rather than to shatter them.

Bulimba cemetery

 

Bulgakov, Mikhail. [1966] 1995. The Master and Margarita. Trans. Diana Burgin and Katherine Tiernan O’Connor. Picador: London.

Chayat, Sherry. 1994. Life Lessons: The art of Jerome Witkin. Second edition. Syracuse University: Syracuse, NY.

De Botton, Alain. 2014. The News: A user’s manual. Hamish Hamilton: London.

 

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Hardy: Gothic defender of women

Can anyone read Hardy without feeling crushed at the injustice of the world? Most particularly at the meddling, life-destroying injustice of the world towards genuine love between two souls? Hardy is not generally listed among Gothic writers, but the tale before us is more than just a tragedy. Pummeling the reader with malady after bitter malady, improbable misfortune after unfortunate encounter, Hardy works the reader into an emotional frenzy more deeply piercing than Walpole ever manages in The Castle of Otranto, but just as unrelenting. But, more than this, Hardy ‘raise[s] the sad spectres of “othered” and oppressed behaviours, crossings of boundaries, and classes of people and finally arrange[s] for the distancing and destruction of those figures or spaces into which the most troubling anomalies have been abjected by most of the middle class’ (Hogle, 2002: 13).

Tess of the D’Urbervilles, provisionally called Too Late Beloved, is a harrowing epic of a country maiden’s swift fall from society’s favour that unravels her life in so complete a manner that one feels her final punishment a reward, though her martyrdom goes unnoticed. Hardy wastes no time in introducing death and destruction, with the unwitting Tess, a mere teen, feeling herself the cause of her family’s ruin when their only horse is slain on her watch. This early insight into her generous and self-aware nature, that cannot help but read the effects of her actions on those around her, prepares us for the more miserable self-blame to come.

Just as swiftly, Hardy brings on Phase the second: Maiden no more, Tess having fallen prey to the man her parents have urged her to request help from—Alec D’Urberville. If this isn’t enough, Tess is with child. If this isn’t enough, her mother blames her for her silliness. If this isn’t enough, the child dies soon after birth. If this isn’t enough, the priest will not baptise the dying baby. Tess names him Sorrow. On being scolded by her mother for her indiscretion, Tess finally lashes out: She couldn’t have known; she was sent into the arms of a beast with no warning from her own mother, with no novels to educate her of the wiles of man.

-I-
I would that folk forgot me quite,
Forgot me quite!
I would that I could shrink from sight,
And no more see the sun.
Would it were time to say farewell,
To claim my nook, to need my knell,
Time for them all to stand and tell
Of my day’s work as done.

Tess struggles with her sudden impurity, and seeks a fresh start—still a teen—moving away from home and finding work in a dairy. She buries her baby and buries her past, leaving her personal demon, Alec D’Urberville, behind. Her mother’s advice—the most sympathetic she ever receives—guides her, backed by centuries of mistreated women and those who blamed them for their misfortunes (p. 191):

Many a woman—some of the Highest in the Land—have had a Trouble in their time; and why should you Trumpet yours when others don’t Trumpet theirs? No girl would be such a Fool, especially as it is so long ago, and not your Fault at all.

 

-II-
Ah! Dairy where I lived so long,
I lived so long;
Where I would rise up staunch and strong,
And lie down hopefully.
‘Twas there within the chimney-seat
He watched me to the clock’s slow beat—
Loved me, and learnt to call me Sweet,
And whispered words to me.

Here Tess meets a face from her carefree younger days, a young man named Angel Clare, son of a clergyman who, having turned his back on the church and thus been denied a university education (something of a sore point for Hardy, reminiscent of Jude the Obscure), is training to be an ‘agriculturalist.’ A slow and sweet romance blossoms between the two that draws Tess out of her bitter mistrust of men. Hardy makes it so pure, airy and magical, that one wants to slip under it like the waters of a cool stream and revel in the morsel of happiness he allows Tess, though one knows it is but a morsel and the thick wad of pages to follow will be scrawled with agony and misfortune (pp. 192-3):

She had not known that men could be so disinterested, chivalrous, protective, in their love for women as he. Angel Clare was far from all that she thought him in this respect; but he was, in truth, more spiritual than animal; he had himself well in hand, and was singularly free from grossness. Though not cold-natured, he was rather bright than hot—less Byronic than Shelleyan; could love desperately, but his love more especially inclined to the imaginative and ethereal; it was an emotion which could jealously guard the loved one against his very self. This amazed and enraptured Tess.

Compelled into marrying him, both by her own intense feelings and his, Tess cannot be so unjust to so loving a soul as to keep such a significant secret from him. And to our minds, we yearn for Tess to find a confidant to describe her sorrows to and ease her burden just a little, and think Angel is above social conventions. But he is not. On Tess’s revelation of her unfortunate past, Angel can no longer see in her his pure country maid. Though he knows intellectually that she is not to blame, and though he knows that the world wrongs her in oppressing her for what was committed by others, he wants Tess to fulfill his ideal of a spotless dairymaid. Forgiving in the general, he cannot accept this situation in the particular, when he had such romantic notions of his own lot in life.

It is here that Hardy is the staunchest defender of womankind: the writer and the reader know that Tess is what she seems, only someone with power over her has been cruel and thoughtless with her body. The reader implores Clare to dig deeper in his heart, and the writer warns us to think again, and not to trust even the kindest-hearted man, who would yet ruin a woman because he cannot have her entirely for his own. Don’t think you are different, or that he is different!—cries Hardy. Men, forsake the chains of society and its false morality and love your women, he cries. Love them through their suffering and the crimes committed against them; don’t make them pay twice.

These feminist themes cement Hardy’s work as Gothic, for it is at its root about the clash of gender roles and expectations that ought to belong to a bygone century but still persist in his own time. Gothic is the perfect vehicle for this: ‘No other form of writing…is as insistent as Gothic on juxtaposing potential revolution and possible reaction—about gender, sexuality, race, class the colonisers versus the colonized, the physical versus the metaphysical, and abnormal versus normal psychology—and leaving both extremes sharply before us and far less resolved than the conventional endings in most of these works claim them to be’ (p. 13).

-III-
And now he’s gone; and now he’s gone; …
And now he’s gone!
The flowers we potted perhaps are thrown
To rot upon the farm.
And where we had our supper-fire
May now grow nettle, dock, and briar,
And all the place be mould and mire
So cozy once and warm.

Alec D’Urberville is Tess’s misfortune personified. Not only does he violate her in her fresh-faced youth, not only does his irremovable blight sever her from her loving husband, but he returns to haunt her—as an evangelist. It is not enough that he has destroyed her happiness, but he is now born again, of a D.L. Moody, Anabaptist-descended variety, if I am not mistaken, preaching fire and brimstone to sinners, getting about in a smock-frock and beard in place of his dandy clothes and cane of his younger, more reckless days. The Gothic coincidence which makes this twist even more painful is that he has been converted by Angel Clare’s clergyman father. D’Urberville is redeemed. Tess is condemned. D’Urberville has broken no law and is blameless in the eyes of God. Tess has flouted the law in marrying when she is physically bound to the man who first raped her; she is forever soiled in God’s eyes for seducing a man. And she believes it.

Tess Durbeyfield and Alec D'Urberville, by Hubert Herkomer

When Tess expresses her views on Christianity, only promoting the spirit of the sermon on the mount, views formed first by Clare and not wholly understood by Tess’s still forming mind, she unwittingly converts her destroyer away from God and his evangelical calling. Freed of his struggle of spirit against flesh, D’Urberville reverts to pursuing Tess with the full force of his passions. He attains his vile, domineering union, and Tess is wed to her misfortune.

-IV-
And it was I who did it all,
Who did it all;
‘Twas I who made the blow to fall
On him who thought no guile.
Well, it is finished—past, and he
Has left me to my misery,
And I must take my Cross on me
For wronging him awhile.

Clare’s internal struggle continues for years, and he cannot forget his abandoned wife, whose friend had asserted, ‘Nobody could love ’ee more than Tess did! … She would have laid down her life for ’ee’ (p. 270). Yet he is still not willing to overlook her stains (pp. 264-5):

This night the woman of his belittling deprecations was thinking how great and good her husband was. But over them both there hung a deeper shade than the shade which Angel Clare perceived, namely, the shade of his own limitations. With all his attempted independence of judgement this advanced man was yet the slave to custom and conventionality when surprised back into his early teachings. … In considering what Tess was not, he overlooked what she was, and forgot that the defective can be more than the entire.

Not even Angel Clare is able to see past the vicious condemnation of victims of rape, until his own lover is tied to her destroyer. Tess is ‘too late beloved.’ The tensions are not resolved in time; Tess is a victim of her gender and of her time.

Tess finally destroys her destroyer, and is in the act emancipated. Is it symbolic? Should she have confronted injustice and misfortune earlier? But we know that she couldn’t, for, though downtrodden, she was not then thoroughly driven to despair. Tess had learned her lot in life, and feeble as it was, she had clung to it and made the best of it. In freeing herself, however, she has removed the last crumbs of respectability society had to toss her way, and is finally and completely condemned. ‘“Justice” was done’ (p. 397). It is harrowing that Hardy’s novels were also condemned in his lifetime, with his manuscript rejected ‘on moral grounds’ by three publishers (p. xix). Hardy described Tess’s ‘fall’ a ‘paradoxical morality,’ but was unable to sway conservative readers, many of whom loathed the ‘succulence’ of Tess, branding her a ‘little harlot’ properly chastised (pp. xix-xx). Here’s to a morally clear-sighted and bravely outspoken critic of his times, who, drawing on Gothic devices to present his formidable social commentary, was on our side.

Hardy, Thomas. 2008 [1891]. Tess of the D’Urbervilles. Penguin Classics: London.

Hogle, Jerrold E. 2002. ‘Introduction: the Gothic in western culture.’ The Cambridge Companion to Gothic Fiction, ed. Jerrold E. Hogle. Cambridge University Press: Cambridge.

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The way I am

It is comforting that the world changes as we change, and that those that have inspired us continue to grow as we grow. People have series of books with which they grew up, whose characters matured as they did, whose themes reflected the dominant ideas and fears of their times, and returning to them is a way to reflect on one’s own journey and to relive that part of a broader history, to position oneself within a broader consciousness.

Music accompanies us in this way as well. At fourteen, I found myself overwhelmed by two strong impulses: Christianity and guitars. The two had to converge, and this is where I ‘met’ Jennifer Knapp. She was, and certainly is now, what people might mockingly consider a walking contradiction: a Christian rock musician. To me, she was simply a brutally honest person with a guitar, who happened to love God.

The way I am

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

When I brought home her CD, The way I am, I listened to it cover to cover on my little boom box. Then I picked up a guitar and learned to play my first song, a scathing self-assessment that changed my outlook for two intense years:

It’s better off this way, to be deaf, dumb and lame, than to be the way I am.

Kill this tongue, for I am hung by this wicked notion.

Tame the beast, release the noose I’ve woven

O, wasted tears dripping from my tongue

I’m hung.

I consulted with my dad over this concept of ‘Christian rock.’ He was happy enough to be a Christian, and happy enough to listen to rock music, but opined that never ought the twain meet—keep the holy holy and the sinful sinful. I supposed this was defendable, but seemed nonetheless unreasonable given Jennifer Knapp simply wrote music that bared her soul, and couldn’t help that her soul was engaged in a fierce spiritual struggle. Never did she say that God was somehow deficient in power or spitefully forsaking her—what she said was that she felt abandoned because she was fallible and human. ‘When I’m down, I search every mistake, I’m looking for new regret, sometimes I forget that his grace is sufficient for me, that it’s deeper and wider than I can conceive.’

Mysteriously, and without warning, Jennifer Knapp disappeared. She skipped out on the rest of her recording contract with Gotee Records with no explanation. I speculated that, since she had been fiercely atheist until the age of eighteen, she might have abandoned God and reverted to her old ways in secret, hoping no one would discover her godly rock star past.

Eight years later, Jennifer resurfaced with a bold revelation: she is a lesbian. She still loves God, and remains convinced of God’s love for her. And she’s ready to make some more music.

And—she has been living under a rock all this time: Australia. No one will ever find you here.

Jennifer’s blog deals with the question of whether her sexuality is really anyone’s business. ‘I am who I am. I love who I love. What difference does it make whether or not people know?’ She concludes, ‘the difference maker was one of personal integrity.’ In television interviews, she bravely and articulately responds to flippant and near accusatory questions with honesty and dignity. She points no fingers. She agrees that people will ‘eat her alive’ and refuse to listen to a gay musician and feel betrayed by a sinful fellow being. But she simply holds her head up and continues to ruminate about her struggles in a candid and thoughtful way. She never claimed to be anybody’s role model, or God on earth. Jennifer Knapp wrote about her fears and doubts and joys, and people respected her integrity.

Along the way of living we accumulate the joys and sorrows of our individual experience that grow into ‘our story’. We learn by listening to others. We learn in the telling of our own journey. We wound, heal, divide and unite, over and over again.

Jennifer’s revelation comes at a time when Australia, her adopted home, makes some important political shifts towards accepting gay marriage. The Labour Party is poised to open the church doors to gay couples, allowing them to express their love in the same way as a heterosexual couple. Younger generations see no need to isolate their gay friends and family, to deny them a simple human gesture.

Christians, the champions of Faith, Charity and Love, continue to call gay people diseased, unnatural, sinful, disgusting, and to have knee-jerk reactions to gay sex as a hideous crime, a fiendish desire that ought to be suppressed. But what does this mean for someone who is gay? Are they really to take up their cross and deny themselves? Are they to live dishonestly? Are they to reject the being that God created? Or are they barred from having faith? Are they denied religion? Must they live celibate, or in guilt? Assuming that gay people are not depraved Sodomites looking for trouble, intentionally inciting the wrath of God, assuming they are regular people, working, paying their bills, studying, playing music, going to the beach, buying thoughtful Christmas presents for their grandmothers, are they really committing hideous crimes? Will Christians let them experience loving relationships? Will Christians let them love God? Will Christians let God love them?

Christianity is an old religion. It preached things like ‘no sex before marriage,’ because people would catch diseases, or impregnate each other, in uncertain times when cures were not available and when children needed the security of a father’s income. At its heart, Christianity claims to be founded on love, to have as it’s backbone the motto, ‘God is love,’ to proclaim to the corners of the earth that ‘God so loved the world that he gave his only son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have everlasting life.’ Now, I know about Lot hanging in Sodom and Gomorrah, and all the depravity and the turning of Lot’s wife into a pillar of salt because she dared look back longingly at her town, but how does this fit with the gospel preached by one Jesus, friend to prostitutes and tax collectors? I’m sure there’s plenty of rules in the old testament about not being buds with prostitutes, but Jesus came ready to accept the very real tears of prostitutes anointing his feet. I don’t consider gay people to be prostitutes. What I consider them to be is real people, full of loves and fears and hopes and dreams like anyone else, cruelly marginalised for their sexual practices.

Seeing Jennifer Knapp emerge from the New South Wales coast, boldly declaring her homosexuality to the Christian community is a surprising twist in my avid following of her career. It gives me new material in my own journey, having myself turned my back on Christianity, when I had far less against me within the church than she did. I trace her journey with interest and admiration, because I know she is a person of integrity, and I hope she paves the way for others in her predicament, caught in the hateful web of the religion founded on ‘love.’

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This could be the night that the moon goes red

I read the book Rebecca, by Daphne du Maurier, on the recommendation that it was a modern day Jane Eyre, the Charlotte Brontë classic. Remembering Jane Eyre, my first foray into classic literature, which attracted me as a young teen with its deep burgundy cover, patterned with fleurs-de-lis and a mysterious old lock, and how it altered my thinking so dramatically, I pocketed a second-hand copy of Rebecca with some relish, imagining dark secrets and frightful revelations verging on the supernatural to be contained within its blood red covers. Alas, Rebecca is not that book.

Rebecca begins charmingly enough, with a young, painfully shy girl on the verge of womanhood; poor, obscure and friendless; working for her keep. Her dizzying anxieties and excruciating social interactions are endearing enough, she is so sweet and so inept that one is transported to that youthful period of feeling one’s way and learning about the world in a halting manner. Likewise, Mr de Winter, though somewhat bitter and distant and twice the girl’s age, has without a doubt locked some dark secret in the depths of his soul, and the scene is thus set for a gothic romance, scaling the passions and the pits of thwarted love.

It is some surprise, then, that only a few pages into the book, this artless proposal of marriage takes place between the two:

‘If you think I’m one of the people who try to be funny at breakfast you’re wrong,’ he said. ‘I’m invariably ill-tempered in the early morning. I repeat to you, the choice is open to you. Either you go to America with Mrs Van Hopper or you come home to Manderley with me.’

‘Do you mean you want a secretary or something?’

‘No, I’m asking you to marry me, you little fool.’

And a little fool she is, the nameless anti-heroine that wafts half-heartedly through Rebecca’s pages. Her namelessness remains her most interesting feature. A pitiful modern counterpart to the gutsy, rational and self-sufficient Jane, who, at nineteen, is conscious enough of her own youthful shortcomings, and sensitive enough to her humble position in society and her lack of beauty, but bold enough to defend herself with reason when treated unjustly.

Where Mrs de Winter cowers from human interaction and allows her flimsy will to be trampled, Miss Eyre embraces her lot and works it, like the servant entrusted with one tenant, multiplying it rather than burying it in the ground:

Still indomitable was the reply—‘I care for myself. The more solitary, the more friendless, the more unsustained I am, the more I will respect myself. I will keep the law given by God; sanctioned by man. I will hold to the principles received by me when I was sane, and not mad—as I am now. Laws and principles are not for the times when there is no temptation: they are for such moments as this, when the body and soul rise in mutiny against their rigour; stringent are they; inviolate they shall be.’

Jane has spunk. Poverty does not crush her, nor force her into abrupt marriages. So strong-willed is she, despite her mild and usually obliging character, that she defies marriage to the man she loves on a point of principle, knowing she could not hold herself in esteem if she agreed to less than optimal terms:

‘Never,’ said he, as he ground his teeth, ‘never was anything at once so frail and so indomitable. A mere reed she feels in my hand!’ (And he shook me with the force of his hold.) ‘I could bend her with my finger and thumb: and what good would it do if I bent, if I uptore, if I crushed her? Consider the eye: consider the resolute, wild, free thing looking out of it, defying me, with more than courage—with a stern triumph. Whatever I do with its cage, I cannot get at it—the savage, beautiful creature!’

Her unbeatable spirit pursues a feminism before its time. Unsatisfied with sewing and knitting and other such feminine accomplishments, Jane devours what knowledge comes her way, perfecting her French, acquiring some German, trying her hand at ‘Hindostanee’ when a tutor presents himself. She is chided for her masculine mind, though this makes her a desirable companion to the men in her life who, whatever role they attribute to women generally, feel that Jane is of a more admirable stock.

Indeed, upon marrying, after a prolonged and tumultuous romance and several obstacles, near deaths, religious frenzies and bodily mutilations, Jane declares, ‘No woman was ever nearer to her mate than I am: ever more absolutely bone of his bone, and flesh of his flesh.’ Godly vengeance resulting in tragedy levels Jane and her beloved to an equal footing—he needs her as surely as she needs him, and with no embarrassment or self-revulsion. That he loves Jane and that she should love and aid him is the world to him, and no cause for feeling weak and unmanly.

Her own religious fervour that guides her harshly principled steps is matched and augmented through a second man, St John Rivers. Were the blood-red moons not enough, and eerie wails rolling across the hills, and disfigured faces of demonic creatures roaming the old mansion, the supernatural meets the religious head-on. St John, brooding and Calvinist, his eyes fastened on the hell opening up like a chasm beneath his fellow beings, recognises this potential for religious ecstasy in Jane and morphs into a demonic being himself, using it to manipulate her:

‘I want a wife: the sole helpmeet I can influence efficiently in life, and retain absolutely till death.’

I shuddered as he spoke: I felt his influence in my marrow—his hold on my limbs.

‘Seek one elsewhere than in me, St John: seek one fitted to you.’

Jane resists his commands that she and her talents give themselves up to God to be a missionary’s wife. His proposal is all the more frightening because his sound arguments about her capabilities are laced with chilling and domineering threats: ‘Do you think God will be satisfied with half an oblation? Will he accept a mutilated sacrifice?’ Religion is amplified to a fearful climax, a parody of itself, a satire of a crucial theme of the book—it is religion has led us here, and now we see it as a beast devouring its best and truest follower. The spell is broken by a supernatural voice carried across the winds—or as Jane considers these inexplicable forces that delve into her life, ‘preternatural.’ Religion, though able to incite frenzy, remains natural, and defeated by something far less definable, and external to the realm of nature.

I have forgotten our unnamed girl. She comes of age as well. It goes something like this: though she heard mysterious things in the forbidden west wing of her mansion, there is no one living there, mad or deformed or otherwise. Her aimless wanderings through darkened passages yield no hidden wives. Rather, her husband admits to her that he murdered his first wife, the elusive Rebecca, and upon realising she never had a rival, our girl is content and grows some self-esteem. She and Mr de Winter are suddenly in love, just in time for their house to get burnt down in a last-ditch echo of Jane Eyre:

There was no moon. The sky above our heads was inky black. But the sky on the horizon was not dark at all. It was shot crimson, like a splash of blood. And the ashes blew toward us with the salt wind from the sea.

Jane Eyre is filled with countless improbable happenings, overly spooky moonlit scenes, abrupt changes and inexplicable coincidences. None of these detract from the narrative. It is a torrent of a tale kept on the ground by a level-headed heroine, though augmented by fantasy that blurs with fast-held religious belief. Jane lets you imagine a little bit, and get swept up in something, and increases your heart rate at exciting junctures, without inventing any magical creatures or unfamiliar terrain.

Rebecca gives us insight into what it is to be a shy girl married to a murderer, happily forced into exile since there is no society with which to contend. Perhaps if I’d known all along, I would not have expected any more from it. It is for this reason I am seeking to distinguish it from Jane Eyre as a shallow read with gothic pretensions.

Perhaps the most appealing thing about Jane is that it is not purely a gothic work, but one that came out of the Romantic period. The darkness is met by grandeur; the emotive skies—far more expansive than the earth—are sublime renderings of pitiful human passions, as the heavens peering between the boughs of a lightening-struck tree illustrate, a sombre presage of the future of Jane and Mr Rochester:

The cloven halves were not broken from each other; … though community of vitality was destroyed—the sap could flow no more: their great boughs on each side were dead: … as yet, however, they might be said to form one tree—a ruin; but an entire ruin.

‘You did right to hold fast to each other,’ I said: as if the monster-splinters were living things, and could hear me. ‘I think, scathed as you look, and charred and scorched, there must be a little sense of life in you yet; rising out of that adhesion at the faithful, honest roots: you will never have green leaves more; … but you are not desolate: each of you has a comrade to sympathise with him in his decay.’ As I looked up at them, the moon appeared momentarily in that part of the sky which filled their fissure; her disk was blood-red and half overcast; she seemed to throw on me one bewildered, dreary glance, and buried herself again instantly in the deep drift of cloud. The wind fell, for a second, round Thornfield; but far away over wood and water, poured a wild, melancholy wail: it was sad to listen to, and I ran off again.

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The Atheist’s Bible

There is a good reason why the tendency religion is so entrenched in the human psyche: it provides us with a sense of purpose and meaning without which we would struggle to survive. Survival after all first requires a motivation to live, and this motivation is strongly tied to a sense of purpose.

Our brains are paradoxical things, because life itself is paradoxical. On one hand, life is pointless; on the other hand, its function is to survive. But if existence is pointless, how can we justify the drive to continue existing?

Mirroring this dilemma, the human brain evolved intelligence to enable us to understand the world around us and make us better at survival. On the other hand, our new understanding of the world threatened to expose the pointlessness of existence, thereby removing the very motivation to survive, even while we had all of the tools. Intelligence seems by nature to be self-destructive.

Fortunately, there is a way out – religion. Our tendency to believe in a higher power without question, that is, our capacity for faith, protects us from the self-destructiveness and depression brought on by existential angst. Unfortunately, as we soar to greater intellectual heights, fewer and fewer of us find satisfaction with the answers religion has to offer. We now question everything, and we no longer see any reason to take things on faith- in fact, we actively reject faith as being misleading and outdated. Religion as we know it cannot keep up with the demands of the advancing human psyche, and the mental tools we now have are too advanced to be curbed by the primitive blade of “God”.

The modern atheist faces a dire problem: how can we save ourselves from the killing apathy of knowing that we are insignificant and that all is futile?

A new solution is emerging. We are sophisticated enough now to realize that the futility of existence has no bearing on our lives, which are nevertheless filled with a richness of experience, both pleasurable and painful, still better than death and non-existence. The new generation is a generation of experience seekers, who realize that life creates its purpose from within. We do not need meaning to be imposed from outside, but prefer to discover meaning through action. We discover our own Gods and superstitions through the mystery of everyday living. The days when a single narrative written in one book could govern the lives of many people is gone; now every person has their own story, their own plot and purpose. The book of the individual is partly defined by character and partly by one’s experiences in the world, different parts of which are accessible to all of us. So even though we still have a common thread between us, we all find a different meaning behind the events that occur, and it is the trading of our interwoven stories that will write the narrative of the new bible.

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