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Before the pot boils, it simmers. Between the conception and the creation falls the shadow. The cusp of something about to be born. A rough beast slouching toward Bethlehem. It is the ambiguous time between the discrete textbook ages of history that we name that is most interesting.

We generally name Romanticism in art as something that thrived in the first half of the 19th century. If it has a birth date, it is usually given as 1798, when William Wordsworth and Samuel Taylor Coleridge first published their Lyrical Ballads, a book of poems that seemed to be a clean break with the past.

Certainly there are other dates we could choose. In music, we often give 1805 and the first performance of Beethoven’s Eroica symphony. In politics, it might be 1789 and the fall of the Bastille in Paris. Or Goya’s Caprichos, published in 1799. Picking a single date is absurd, because Romanticism wasn’t born like Athena, burst instantly from the head of Zeus. It wasn’t born at all; rather, it accumulated. 

And in the 50 or so years before we gave the movement a name, it kept popping its head up above the surface in odd moments, letting us know it was coming. 

Before Beethoven, there were the Sturm und Drang symphonies of Joseph Haydn, beginning with his Symphony No. 39 in G-minor of 1765. There was Goethe’s Sorrows of Young Werther of 1774, that set all of Europe to sympathetic weeping and toward a penchant for suicide. In English, there was Horace Walpole’s Castle of Otranto, from 1764 that began a craze for Gothic novels, with their attendant gloom, rattling chains and ghosts in dungeons. There were the faux Celtic sagas that James McPherson published in 1765 as The Works of Ossian. All these, and many more came as a sort of antidote to the rationality of the Enlightenment. 

And, there are the prisons of Giovanni Battista Piranesi. These 16 etchings are sui generis in Piranesi’s vast output, and a fierce eruption rising to the surface of the simmering pot. 

Piranesi (1729-1778) was an architect, archeologist and printmaker who was fascinated by the ruins of Ancient Rome. While his architectural work consisted of a single building, and his archeology was more of a sideline, it is as an etcher and engraver that he became famous. One of the best printmakers of his time, his intricate detail and exacting craftsmanship were exceptional. 

Half his work functioned as a record of archeological evidence, cataloguing ancient architectural detail; the other half was as a profitable creator of souvenirs for European aristocracy, mainly British, who were taking the “Grand Tour” of Europe to flesh out their educations. 

These prints, known as Vedute, or “Views,” were in the Picturesque tradition — ruins covered in vines and under the arches of which lived peasants. It was a rich tradition in the second half of the 18th Century, and a bankable genre for artists wishing to make a good living. 

During this time, the rediscovery of Pompeii and Herculaneum prompted an interest in the past, including Ancient Greece, Egypt and the Gothic.  Johann Joachim Winckelmann was writing ecstatically about the glory that was Greece and the grandeur that was Rome. Piranesi rode this rising tide and published hundreds of vedute engravings. 

Many of these transcended the reality of the ruins left in Rome and the Campagna and were pure fantasies of what might have been. The more extravagant the fantasy, the better. 

In the midst of these popular prints, in the late 1740s, Piranesi began making a series of fantasy prints of imaginary prisons, or carceri, built of immense dank spaces and torture devices. Each of the original 14 prints was roughly the size of a 16-by-20 photograph, large by most etching standards. But they were an anomaly, and didn’t sell well. Surely, they came a decade too early.

For, in 1761, Piranesi reworked the original plates, adding two new ones, and republished them as Carceri d’invenzione, or “imaginary prisons.” According to Belgian writer, Marguerite Yourcenar, they represent “negation of time, incoherence of space, suggested levitation, intoxication of the impossible reconciled or transcended.” And can best be understood as externalizations of internal mental and emotional states. Nightmares, even.

 

Plate I Title; Plate II Man on the rack

Plate III The round tower; Plate IV The piazza

Plate V The lion bas-reliefs; Plate VI The smoking fire

Plate VII The drawbridge; Plate VIII The staircase with trophies

 

Plate IX The giant wheel

 

Plate X Prisoners on the projecting platform

 

Plate XI Arch with a shell ornament

 

Plate XII The sawhorse

 

Plate XIII The well

 

Plate XIV The Gothic arch

Plate XV Pier with a lamp

 

Plate XVI Pier with chains

 

Comparing the first and second states of the series, one sees them change from rather sketchy drawings to richly inked, dark and menacing spaces, with architecture and geometry that are often physically impossible — almost Escher like. 

The 1761 version of the plates were enormously popular and were reprinted many times. They leave behind the comfort and orderliness of the 18th Century and look ahead to the Byronic, irrational and psychologically disturbing Zeitgeist of the early 19th Century. They are a harbinger, a precursor, a herald. 

They are a manifestation of the sublime — a concept fresh in the culture, with a translation, in French, by Nicolas Boileau-Despréaux of the Perihypsos (“On the Sublime”) of the Roman author Longinus, and a book-length essay on the subject by English writer and politician Edmund Burke. 

The sublime is the profound psychological awareness of the immensity of the cosmos and vastness of nature compared with the puny insignificance of humans, but seen not simply as depressing or frightening, but as unbearably beautiful. Joseph Addison called it “an agreeable kind of horror.” It is awe, in the sense the word had before it became cant among American teenagers for whom a peanut-butter sandwich might casually be called “awesome.” 

In Longinus, we read: “We are by nature led to marvel, not, indeed, at little streams, clear and useful though they be, but at the Nile, the Danube, of the Rhine, and still more at the Ocean. A little fire which we have lit may keep pits flame pure and constant, but it does not awe us more than the fires of heaven, through these may often be obscured; nor do we consider our little fire more worthy of admiration than the craters of Etna whose eruptions throw up rocks and mighty boulders or at times pour fourth rivers of lava from that single fire within the earth. We might say of all such matters that man can easily understand what is useful or necessary, but he admires what passes his understanding.”

And so, the Carceri cannot be made coherent and understandable. The prisons expand outward into unseen spaces that open again into other unseen spaces. There are stairs to nowhere, torture devices in the shadows, catwalks over bottomless pits, stones overgrown with moss — and many tiny, nearly unseeable figures, caught in this Kafka-esque labyrinth. 

—You can find a wonderful animated tour through Piranesi’s prison on YouTube (link here). 

And you can get some of the effect in reality in the actual Medieval prison, the Conciergerie, in Paris, where Marie Antoinette was held before her beheading.

Mt. St. Michel

Or the rambling stairs and arches of Mont St. Michel at the border of Normandy and Brittany.

 

The Carceri are not anomalous for their subject alone: Unlike Piranesi’s usual draftsmanlike exactitude in his drawings, the prisons are nearly scribbled onto the etching plate. They imply a kind of fury in their creation, as if Piranesi were trying to get his vision down into line before they evaporated from his boiling imagination. Shelley once described the moment of creation as an ember rapidly cooling that needs be indited before the glow darkens. You can see Piranesi frantic not to lose the hallucination. 

The change from Classicism to Romanticism — like the change from the Renaissance to the Baroque — is not simply one of rationalism curdled to emotionalism, but of clarity as a virtue lost into a fog of ambiguity and incoherence. It is Racine metamorphosed to Rousseau. 

Beethoven’s “Fidelio”

The subject matter had enormous influence as the 19th Century was born. It is the Venetian prison and escape described by Giocomo Casanova in his 1787 Story of My Flight and later in his memoirs. Prisons and dungeons are everywhere to be found in literature, art and music. It is the prison where Florestan is rescued by Leonora in Beethoven’s opera, Fidelio. It is the dungeon where François Bonivard meditated in Byron’s Prisoner of Chillon. It is the prison that Alexandre Dumas, père, put The Man in the Iron Mask. It is the torture site of the Inquisition in Edgar Allen Poe’s The Pit and the Pendulum. Not the least, it is, historically, the Bastille in Paris and its siege and fall that set off the French Revolution. 

“Dracula”

It is a trope that continues into the 20th and 21st centuries. It is Carfax Abbey in Tod Browning’s 1931 film, Dracula. 

The very gantry ways and bridges make their way into Fritz Lang’s Metropolis. 

Now, that same spacious gothic sublime turns up in fantasy films, such as Lord of the Rings, on TV in Game of Thrones and in nerd games, like Dungeons and Dragons. 

You can find its inception in 1761 with Piranesi. 

Awesome. 

Click on any image to enlarge

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Call me Wordsworth.

When I was in my 20s, strapping and idealistic — i.e., an idiot — I lusted after this landscape. I knew it only in the photos in the Sierra Club coffeetable books, thinking how grand it would be to live in an alpine meadow in the Cascades, Sierras or in Alaska, with distant lightning-zag waterfalls dropping in a pencil-line a thousand feet down the face of a granite escarpment. I could feel the bracing air in my imagination. nuggetfallsb&w copy

The attraction was part a Longinian yearning for the sublime, for the vastness of the landscape; part of the attraction was its isolation, away from the ordinariness of daily life with all its people, some of whom might well be my boss. There was no TV in this idealized world; only bear and moose.

I am older now, still an idiot, and I can no longer feel that fervid longing, at least not directly, but I remembered it keenly visiting the mountains and glaciers of Alaska. They are vast, the air is ice on the skin and the vistas are the kind John Martin might paint.peaks2 copy

The pianist Glenn Gould once made a radio show for Canadian listeners called “The Idea of North.”

For those of us south of his border, the idea of north is Alaska. Endless forests, grizzly bears, rock-cobbled rivers, salmon, snow and rime.

Alaska is an inaccessible place, where no interstates lead, and even its state capital cannot be reached except by air or sea. For most of us, Alaska is important precisely because we cannot get there; it is proof that there is still a moment on the planet that is not yet filled with highways, billboards, Nike ads and grinning tourists. For most of Alaska, to be seen is to be explored; it takes dedication, muscle and energy, just as it did for the Gold Rush prospectors who hiked over the Chilkoot Trail.snow and trees copy

We think of Robert Service poetry or Jack London novels. Perhaps our idea of the frozen north comes from Robert Flaherty’s “Nanook of the North,” or Mary Shelley’s “Frankenstein.” In any case, it is a north that is still dangerous. A landscape that carries with it the final sense of the sublime: beauty that can kill us. And even if we survive, it is beauty on such a scale that our human minuteness shrivels our ambitions and makes us harbor cosmic thoughts.creek copy

Two hundred years ago, European art and literature was chockablock with the frozen Arctic. From paintings by Caspar David Friedrich to “Frankenstein,” it was icebergs and glaciers that told of the vastness and sublimity of nature. Make that Nature, with a Capital N.

The dark, stormy North was inaccessible and remote; humans were pismires in its vastness; danger lurked everywhere. Ice froze on the ship’s rigging and mariners had to chop it away with axes. margerieboat copy

“We are still surrounded by mountains of ice, still in imminent danger of being crushed by their conflict.” — “Frankenstein”

Or, from “The Ricome of the Ancient Mariner”:

“And now there came both mist and snow,/ And it grew wondrous cold:/ And ice, mast-high, came floating by,/As green as emerald. … / It cracked and growled, and roared and howled,/ Like noises in a swound!”gullclose copy

As green as emerald? Rather, as blue as sapphire.

In College Fjord, the glacial ice is blackened at the margins with sooty dirt and rocks, but the central part — the “filet,” as you might call it — is pure and clean. It is there, in places where deep fissures in the ice let you see into the glacier, that the ice shows bright, clear blue. The color is brighter when the sun briefly shines on it. It is Tarheel blue, as bright as a new paint block in a watercolor set. Blue ice

One of the vertical slices of the glacier has been worn through, leaving an icy natural bridge. In its donut hole, the blue is intense. Ice, it turns out is blue. It is not the mere reflection of the sky that makes it so — if proof be needed, there is no blue sky most of this day — but rather that the ice is not clear. Turns out, water is not clear, either. octopus fingers mask copyIt really is blue, although so thinly colored that a glass of it looks transparent. Put enough of it together and the blue is apparent enough. And the ice made in this giant Frigidaire is also blue where it is pure enough, although much of the surface is roughed up with layers of snow, to make them white and glistening.

Crack and boom, and some more ice falls off the front of the glacial wall. Most of the calving involves an avalanche of small ice cubes and snow balls rather than the giant heaving chunks we see on the nature TV shows. The center of the glacier’s face is where most of the action is happening; a certain section is concave and its upper surface, overhanging its lower, keeps dropping bits like plaster falling off a wet ceiling. It crashes into the water in big ice slides and sends up waves that circle off toward the boat. They peter out into wide ripples before they reach us, so we can hardly notice them as they pass.BW09

When a bigger chunk falls off, it drops below the surface and immediately pops back up, like a whale breeching. Sometimes, as it reappears, it also turns over on its back, like a restless sleeper, before settling back down into the water. Seabirds rush to the spot to seek food.ketchikan totem 2 copy

It was the north that attracted Amundsen, Nansen, Peary. Parkas of animal fur made their heads three times normal size and they walked about in a stiff-leg shuffle in the ice and snow. The sky was always gray and the air always frigid. Snow blew sideways.

It was the ice and isolation that drew Byron’s Manfred, Jack London’s White Fang, Robert Service’s Dan McGrew. In Finland, it is the snow and ice of Sibelius’s “Finlandia,” the thin, remote trombones of his Seventh Symphony.

The problem is, that for most Americans who venture to Alaska now, they do so on a cruise ship, eating rib roasts and sherry triffle, looking off the taffrail for the spout of a friendly whale, or the antics of a sea otter. The cruise industry has turned the sublime into Disney ride. Whee!

It can take some concentrated effort, but for anyone who wants to invest the psychic and emotional energy to do so, the Alaska of vast spaces and endless emptiness is still there. But unlike the days when leathery men packed mules to go across the passes, we have to make that journey more in our heads than on our feet. It is an act of imaginative will to see the skull beneath the skin, the rocky sublimity under the coating of easy tourism.cruise ship in the fjord juneau copy

I went to Alaska to find the wilderness I fantasized about when I was 20. It was the allure of the Sierra Club coffeetable books, with their glossy photos of deep glacial valleys and snow-capped sierras. I imagined living on some Cascadian mountainside with mountain goats and bear grass.

Which brings us all back to Wordsworth and the “Intimations Ode.”peaksb&w copy

We gain a good deal as we accumulate experience like barnacles. We are stronger, less easily angered or driven to political excesses, and we certainly have learned something about love that we could never have guessed when our hearts merely wanted. But, we have lost a good deal, too.

“I know, where’er I go,/ That there hath pass’d away a glory from the earth.”lowsun copy

Now that I am past 60, it is no longer a life I want, but one can never cease wishing to be 20 and longing for the heart’s desire.

apostle 1When I was leaving the theater after seeing Robert Duvall’s The Apostle, way back in 1997, a loud woman in the back of the crowd screamed out, somewhat redundantly, ”That’s the worst movie I have ever seen … in my entire life.”

At first, I couldn’t understand her reaction. It was a very good film, a quiet, intense character study of a Southern preacher. Perhaps, I thought, there were not enough car crashes in it, not enough glowing, cherry-red petro-explosions.

Certainly the film had not fulfilled her expectations.

And that was the sticking point. I have thought about it long and hard. Was The Apostle an outlier or a harbinger? There have been many articles written about the death of irony, yet, irony refuses quite to go away. The attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, led to a brief hiccup in our otherwise comforting embrace of the snarky, but it soon returned. If we briefly took a breath and said to ourselves, some things are too real, too important to sniff at, well, then it didn’t stop Stephen Colbert, it didn’t put an end to The Onion.

But there was still something in Duvall’s film. The singular quality of the film is its lack of irony. Everything is presented utterly straight, with no snide comments under the breath, no revelation of hypocrisy, no hidden agenda. Duvall neither makes fun of the Apostle’s deeply held religion, nor does he proselytize for it: It is not a “Christian” film, but a sober look at the complexities of a Christian life, fully rounded, and not a summation of a generic Christian life, but rather only this one person. Irony depends on stereotypes, on “classes” of people, not on individuals.

This straightforwardness is rare in Hollywood, perhaps unique, where we expect a cushion of irony to protect us from messy experience. hangover 1

Irony, narrowly defined, is saying one thing but meaning another. As when we see a friend green-skinned and hung over in the morning and say to him, ”You look bright and chipper today.”

In that, we are both in on the joke. Often, though, an audience is split between those who get it and those who don’t. Irony is thus used frequently as a kind of shibboleth for a clique. Those who ”get it” are in, those who don’t move to a retirement community in Florida.

Irony is also a literary trope, which means, its expectations are linguistic and not experiential. Most Hollywood movies set up a form and audiences know where the story is going. A gun flashed in an early scene will by expectation be used in a later scene. The surprise we wait for is the when.

But The Apostle never quite does this. Each time we spot an obvious plot development, the movie goes elsewhere, and where it goes is closer to what might happen in real life than what we would normally expect in a movie.

All setups are frustrated.

Unlike almost any mainstream Hollywood film, there was no ”in joke” to be in on.

Instead, the story of the Apostle E.F. is given to us as an esthetic construct, something to apprehend and appreciate, to hold in our mind, whole, as we might hold in our hands a glass orb, rotating it and seeing it from all angles.

In its lack of irony, The Apostle is an odd fit for our cultural moment. The 20th Century was a century of irony; irony has been our lingua franca. But, there are some indications that as we descend into the 21st, irony has begun to wear out its welcome. It is still pervasive, but oftentimes, it seems to come by rote, as in so many sitcom pilots, seemingly written from some formula. Irony is tired; it wants to put up its feet and rest. We expect the irony, but we don’t really believe in it anymore. It’s just the norm, which we also are too tired to give up.

This shift away from irony has happened before: It is clearest in the change from the 18th to 19th centuries, from the irony of Alexander Pope to the sincerity of William Wordsworth.

daffodilsOne has only to compare the mock epic tone of The Rape of the Lock with the straightforwardness, almost blandness of “I wandered lonely as a cloud/ That floats on high o’er vales and hills,/ When all at once I saw a crowd,/ A host, of golden daffodils.”

A younger generation back then, tired of the artificiality of the older and sought to substitute an authenticity for the artifice.

There were things that were important to be said, the younger generation thought, and to be said clearly and meaningfully. The century that followed Wordsworth was a century without irony — and almost, at times, it seemed without a sense of humor.

Eventually, the century gagged on its own sincerity, so that when the new one began, the page flipped back. Poets such as T.S. Eliot and Ezra Pound stoked their verses heavily with irony, never saying quite what they meant, always approaching their subject obliquely.

We no longer trusted the Great Truth spelled out in large, direct letters, and for good reason. Too many Great Truths turned out to be miserable lies. Colonialism, Imperialism, racism, purity, idealism. There have been many deaths. picasso violin

This wasn’t true only in literature. Music turned from Tchaikovsky’s grand passions to Stravinsky’s tweaked noses, art from grand historical paintings to pasted bits of daily newspapers and deconstructed violins.

One has only to compare the historical straggler, such as D.W. Griffith’s sentimental Way Down East with Ernst Lubitsch’s brassy Ninotchka. It is the same change. You can see the pendulum swing, saeculorum decursum, over and over.

Between the irony and the directness there is constant battle, for neither is sufficient. Each mode has both its strengths and weaknesses. Direct sentiment soon devolves into Victorian sentimentality, so that we laugh now at the mawkishness of much of it. But irony declines into mere cleverness, so that we admire an author’s wit, without much regard for his sense.

This has certainly been the case in Hollywood. It is rare to find a film in which actors behave the way any real people behave or feel the feelings of real people. Instead, they speak in catch phrases that ring with bell-like cleverness. The plots are artificial; their resolutions preposterous.

”Hasta la vista, baby!”

”Go ahead, punk, make my day!”

”Show me the money.”

“I have had it with these motherfucking snakes on this motherfucking plane!”

On television, it is even thicker. Seinfeld was a wonderfully clever sitcom, but it was, by its own admission, about ”nothing.” All style, no substance.

Most sitcoms are the same, and most hourlong dramas are numbingly formulaic. Forrest gump

Yet, there is a hunger for substance. It shows up in such mainstream places as movies like Forrest Gump, where the sincerity and lack of irony of its main character seems like a breath of life. The movie itself was mildly ironic, but the character was guileless. And what is more, his earnestness — that is, his ”pure heart” — won him all his prizes. (I am not defending the film as a whole, but only making a point about its underlying proposal of directness and sincerity — many people despise the film for this very reason).

In that, the tone of the movie was completely at odds with its predecessor, Being There, where we were all in on the great in-joke, as the idiot gardener, Chance, fools all the supposedly smart stuffed shirts into finding profundity in his inanities. Chauncey Gardner

And just as a clever century distrusts an earnest one, the pendulum swings back and we are beginning to be unsatisfied by the cleverness. The deeper Quentin Tarantino dives into genre film pastiche, the more irrelevant he becomes. His first films were about something — the deaths in Pulp Fiction, however clever in terms of plot, were real deaths with consequences; in Kill Bill, the deaths are just tin ducks in a shooting gallery. They carry no punch.

This great cultural sea change may be due, but it hasn’t become pervasive yet. Still, there are warning signs: Sincerity has also brought us political correctness; it has brought New Age philosophy; it has brought us any part of a Tyler Perry movie that isn’t Madea.

For, while irony requires a modicum of intelligence, sincerity is democratic: Everyone is invited — no brain too small. It runs the gamut from genius to imbecility. Not every 19th century poet was Wordsworth; heck, even Wordsworth was only Wordsworth on a good day.

The watchword for irony is skepticism; for sincerity, credulity. Blind faith in alternative medicines, UFOs and astrology is only possible in a time when our irony is eroding.

Yet, irony doesn’t get off the hook so easily, either. There are reasons some people feel compelled to give it up as the new century reaches its teen years.

The first is that irony is words, not life. It is essentially linguistic. That is, its rules and habits are linguistic rules, not experiential rules.

With irony, as with a joke, you have to have the setup and punch line come in the right order, followed by the rim shot. Out of sequence, they fall flat and meaningless.

Real life has other demands, but with irony, we translate the experience of life into the language. Language is a kind of parallel universe, divorced from reality, but somehow accepted as its mirror: When we are laughing at a joke on a sitcom, we are laughing not at life, but at language.

It is at the core of what is called Modern Art, that the process becomes the subject: The painter paints paintings about paint, the playwright constructs dialogue about speech, the sculptor shows us the raw surface of stone. Modernism has been about the tools it uses.

And that is why, at the end of the Modern century, the armor of irony that has protected our egos from the embarrassment of our sentiment has begun to fall off. We demand real experience.

When that woman yelled out her frustration at The Apostle, she was complaining that her linguistic expectations — the language of film we have all become accustomed to — were violated. Robert Duvall was doing something different.

But our culture now requires of all of us that we rise above our comfortable irony and attempt to see what is actually out there, floating in reality.

And deal with it.