Unreal Nature

December 22, 2014

The Trivial Kitchenry of Doing

Filed under: Uncategorized — unrealnature @ 5:40 am

… ‘His Christ is merely a rather fat model sitting with his back against a wall, and two women with wings on either side of him. …’

This is from Realism by Linda Nochlin (1971):

… for the Realist, the imagery of death is weighted down to earth by an obsessive preoccupation with the triviality of the context in which it occurs. The dying person is firmly anchored to the here and now by an insistence on the social milieu in which he dies, the objects which surround him, the account of the daily round of events in which his death, far from being a significant solemnity, constitutes no more than a distressing interruption. A classic example of this type of death scene, in which the impassive objectivity of the author seems perfectly to capture the utter self-interest and indifference of the subject-matter — the Norman peasantry — is the death of the ‘pe’ in Maupassant’s story Le Vieux, where the peasants, in order to save time, start the funeral feast before the old man dies, and laconically, in their coarse dialect, berate him for finally dying before they have finished their funeral cakes. A similar merging of the experience of death with the banality of daily life occurs in Zola’s L’Assommoir, in the section dealing with the death and funeral of Mère Coupeau, where it is mainly the expenses involved that preoccupy the survivors who again express themselves directly and in their unelevated argot, in scenes described by Zola with every detail of their circumstantial triviality.

For the Realist, the reduction of the vertical significance of death requires an expansion of its horizontal circumstantiality, so to speak. In the past, men had no doubt feared death, suffered excruciatingly in the course of it, died surrounded by bed-pans and medicine bottles and quarrelling relatives anxious to get down to the reading of the will and back to the business of daily life, yet the imagery of the act of dying was itself, in the seventeenth century, for example, elevated above and purified of all such petty, mundane details by a belief in a transcendental meaning lying beyond.

… Precisely what had been resolutely expunged from the classical space of death, most thoroughly in classical tragedy — the perceived details, the contingencies of social behaviour, what the French critic, Roland Barthes, has called the ‘trivial kitchenry of doing’ — is returned to it by the Realist.

… Could an age in which ‘hard-headed people’ to use the words of Matthew Arnold, viewed the Bible as a ‘set of asserted facts which it is impossible to verify’ and hence to be rejected as either imposture or fairy-tale, continue to paint miracles, visions, transfigurations and apotheoses, angels bearing crowns of martyrdom on clouds of light? For Courbet the answer was an unqualified negative. ‘I cannot paint an angel because I have never seen one,’ he frankly declared, and when a young art student brought him a study of the head of Christ, Courbet, having asked him whether he had been personally acquainted with the subject in question and having received a negative answer, advised him to do ‘the portrait of your papa’ instead.

Manet’s admirers specifically praised the non-religious qualities of his treatment of a traditional religious theme: ‘They say that the Christ is not a Christ, and I admit that may be the case,’ declared Zola; ‘for me it is a corpse painted in full daylight with freedom and vigor.’ George Moore stated: ‘His Christ is merely a rather fat model sitting with his back against a wall, and two women with wings on either side of him. There is no attempt to suggest a Divine death or to express the Kingdom of Heaven on the Angels’ faces. But the legs of the man are as fine a piece of painting as has ever been accomplished.’

Edouard Manet, The Dead Christ with Angels, 1864 [image from WikiArt]

… When one of Mayhew’s London poor, a fourteen year-old boy, admits,upon questioning that while he had ‘sartenly … heer’d of God who made the world,’ but ‘couldn’t exactly recollec’ when he’d heer’d on him,’ that he ‘knew there was a book called the Bible’ but didn’t know what it was about and ‘didn’t mind to know,’ had never been in a church, but ‘had heer’d they worshipped God there; didn’t know how it was done,’ then one is hardly surprised to discover that he ‘didn’t know what happened to people after death, only that they was buried. Had seen a dead body laid out; was a little afeared at first; poor Dick looked so different, and when you touched his face, he was so cold! oh, so cold! Had heer’d on another world; wouldn’t mind if he was there hisself, if he could do better, for things was often queer here … ‘ Such confinement to the factual here and now is both an exaggerated product of and an expression of the withering of the forces of religion on the minds of men, which, on a vastly higher level found its prophetic utterance in Ludwig Feuerbach’s battle-cry of the new secularism and his impassioned plea for the substitution of the image of man, in his social context, for the image of God as the guiding light of Western Civilization:

It is a question today, you say, no longer of the existence or non-existence of God, but of the existence or non-existence of man; not whether God is a creature whose nature is the same as ours, but whether we human beings are to be equal among ourselves; not whether and how we can partake of the body of the Lord by eating bread, but whether we have enough bread for our own bodies; not whether we render unto God what is God’s and unto Caesar what is Caesar’s, but whether we finally render unto man what is man’s; not whether we are Christians or heathens, theists or atheists, but whether we are or can become men, healthy in soul and body, free, active and full of vitality. [ … ] In place of the illusory, fantastic, heavenly position of man which in actual life necessarily leads to the degradation of man, I substitute the tangible, actual, and consequently also the political and social position of mankind. The question concerning the existence or non-existence of God is for me nothing but the question concerning the existence of non-existence of man.

My previous post from Nochlin’s book is here.




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