Unreal Nature

January 26, 2015

Summons Us from Afar

Filed under: Uncategorized — unrealnature @ 5:52 am

… It seeks to make desirable its version of what happened; to make its reality an object of desire.

This is from Manet and the Execution of Maximilian by John Elderfield (2006):

Gérard Genette, a theorist of narrative, has observed that verisimilitude is not the accidentally real but the essentially ideal. This is to say, what seems most believably true to life is not necessarily what, in fact, happened but, rather, what the narrative persuasively argues did happen. And in a narrative, it follows, the strongest medium for persuading truthfulness, even above credible description, is a credible temporal sequence because of the implications of motivation and causality that it can provide. (And, if reinforced by a credible spatial sequence, its persuasiveness will increase.)

… In fact, a careful reader knows very well that when a narrative argues too persuasively that something did happen, it may not have happened at all. And a sloppy reader knows even better that life is indeed composed of the accidentally real, not the essentially ideal. Therefore, strong narrative accounts of events that did happen may well, and appropriately, provoke skepticism as to their verisimilitude if not their veracity. For such accounts, not only is narrativity intimate with temporality; both are intimate with disbelief.

… [Manet’s] reinvention of history painting, I shall suggest, meant opposition to the coherence and certainty of a narrative, and required him to build paintings from the very factors that would seem most likely to tear them apart.

[ … ]

… A theorist of narrative, Hayden White, has observed that “the reality that is represented in the historical narrative, in ‘speaking itself,’ speaks to us, summons us from afar (this ‘afar’ is the land of forms), and displays to us a formal coherency that we ourselves lack.” I have spoken of the layering of meanings and creation of uncertainty in Manet’s painting, of their disruption of narrative continuity and their spatial dislocations. Therefore, it seems odd to be alluding to coherence at this point. But I did say earlier that Manet’s reinvention of history painting not only meant opposition to the coherence and certainty of a narrative, but also required him to build unity for his paintings from the very factors that would seem most likely to tear them apart.

[line break added to make this easier to read online] “The historical narrative,” White adds, “reveals to us a world that is putatively ‘finished,’ done with, over, and yet not dissolved, not falling apart. In this world, reality wears the mask of a meaning, the completeness and fullness of which we can only imagine, never experience.” Instead of bringing from afar a completeness that can only be imagined, perhaps Manet may be thought to bring what is afar into a unity built from what is falling apart, not from any single unifying principle but by dissolving and reforming oppositions, reversals, and inversions that cannot be imagined but have to be experienced.

History claims authority, says White. It needs to, because more than one version of the same set of events can be imagined, and it does so by summoning us to an arena of formal coherence, therefore credibility. It seeks to make desirable its version of what happened; to make its reality an object of desire. This means that, again, in White’s words, “the reality which lends itself to narrative representation is the conflict between desire, on the one side, and the law on the other,” and it means that most overtly in an autocracy. Ordering for desirability may seek complicity with the desires of an audience, even an autocratic audience; at its most compliant, this wlll mean imposing upon events what is lawfully desirable, namely, the formal coherence of a narrative order that stories familiar and credible to the audience will possess.

[line break added] This was the juste-milieu approach of the paintings that were popular in the Salons. Insofar as Manet’s paintings disrupt such coherence and refuse to offer an imagination of completeness but require its experiential building, they may be said to disrupt the expected, lawful means of narrative credibility. And all of Manet’s paintings constructed in this way may, irrespective of their subjects and their intimations, be held to be political constructions precisely in their destruction of lawful means of meaning.

Manet_Maximilian
Edouard Manet, The Execution of Emperor Maximilian, 1879 [image from Wikipedia]

To be continued …

-Julie

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