VARIATIONS ON A THEME.
By JAMES GALLANT.
Rank1 was aware that mortality is central to the human condition, that the fear of mortality and the wish for immortality are governing principles in the life of each individual, and that we play out our individual bids for immortality through creation, procreation, and identification. The wish for immortality, argued Rank, is ultimately responsible for the development of culture and civilization as well. (Esther Menaker, in Separation, Will, and Creativity: The Wisdom of Otto Rank.)
“The more laden he is with years, the more readily he speaks of his death as a distant, quite unlikely event.” (E.M. Cioran, in The Trouble with Being Born.)
THE FEAR “CENTRAL to the human condition,” as Rank describes it in his often brilliant Art and Artist: Creative Urge and Personality Development (1932), has nothing to do with specific threats—it’s just innate awareness of human limitedness: “Life fear is given along with the life process itself.”
But he contemplates an equally primitive, offsetting eternizing instinct which “all our anthropology, sociology, biology—yes, and psychology” fail to acknowledge. To speak of this instinct as a “wish for immortality,” as Menaker does in the passage quoted above, is perhaps a bit misleading, since Rank sees it operative in psychological phenomena with no obvious connection to the idea of life everlasting: e.g., in the human attractions to permanence rather than change, artificial environments over natural ones, and form as opposed to randomness.
In Art and Artist Rank is concerned primarily with this instinct as it plays in the arts. Referring to anthropologists of his time who had studied primitive body ornamentation and shaping, Rank italicizes the remark of E. von Sydow that these practices imposed “form on the natural material of bone, flesh, and blood, as an assertion of its own independence [from Nature].” Symbols of the tribe or totem-group ornamenting the natural body assimilated it to a permanent group identity.
The modern tattoo has generally a personal rather than a collective significance, but its appeal, too, is its permanence. “A tattoo,” actress Angelina Jolie says, “is something permanent when you’ve made a self-discovery, or something you’ve come to a conclusion about.” Tom Leddy remarks in an online essay, “Kant’s Aesthetics: Tattoos, Architecture and Gender-Bending,”2 that students who relish tattooing today “tend to connect the practice with their quest for self-knowledge and self-creation.” The tattoo is an enduring record of what one has learned or become.
Other simple expressions of the “eternizing” will are to be found in the abstract, repetitive visual patterns of craft ornamentation—rug-weaving, fretwork, mosaic design—“abbreviations of the infinite,” Rank calls them. The more primitive the art, the stronger the impulse to abstraction will be, and the firmer art’s connection with “collective ideologies.” There are illustrations of such abstraction in the stiff, simple, hieratic Biblical characters and saints in Gothic church sculpture and frescoes. Later naturalistic Renaissance painting which not only represented religious figures as flesh and blood individuals in natural poses, but emphasized the stylistic peculiarities of the individual artist, reveal the waning of a “collective immortality ideology” and also a tendency of art to supplant religion–at least for its creators. However, the Renaissance artist’s achievement of what Rank calls an “individual immortality of deliberate self-perpetuation” expressed the eternizing will as surely as the art it replaced.
Art, even severely realistic art, is never simply a copy of Nature. Even when the artist is intent on simple representation, the governing impulse is domination of process and flux. Rank, like Freud, saw a certain resemblance between the neurotic who withdraws from experience to avoid its perils, and the artist who retreats in order to dominate experience. In either case there is psychological removal from process, the difference being that the artist is willful and productive, the neurotic is neither. (Rank thought that Freud, in equating creation in the arts with sexual repression, had failed to acknowledge that the artist seeking an “individual immortality of deliberate self-perpetuation” may espouse a sexual repression that is monkish and voluntary.)
The uncanny eternizing effect of art was what held John Keats’ attention as he contemplated those figures on the 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,
Forever wilt thou love, and she be fair!
My first reading of “Ode on a Grecian Urn” reminded me of a teenage experience of mine identical in substance with Keats’, though dissimilar in content. When I was a freshman in high school, the managing editor of my Ohio hometown’s daily newspaper hired me to write local sports. My first assignment was to cover a baseball game. I was none too sure at the age of thirteen I could write publishable newspaper copy, and I labored long and hard over my article on the game that ended with a long fly ball scoring the winning run from third base. Finishing my last draft, I experienced a sudden sharp intuition of how strange it was that language had preserved the game-ending fly ball and could hypothetically evoke it forever.
BETWEEN 1859 AND 1863, still photography was still a novelty when Oliver Wendell Holmes published three essays about it in The Atlantic Monthly. Stuart Ewen in The Politics of Style in Contemporary Culture (1988) writes that what Holmes found most remarkable about photography was that “the momentary glance, the ineffable memory, the detailed and textured surface, could now be lifted from its particular place and time, separated from the powerful grasp of the material environment, yet still remain real, visible, and permanent.” In other words, photography spoke to the “eternizing” instinct.
The fine arts had always done that, but a drawing, a painting, or a sculpture was a relatively slow, laborious, production requiring special aptitude. “Taking a picture,” on the other hand, was quick and easy, and after later simplifications of the medium, and the emergence of the “Kodak,” nearly anyone could do it. The prophetic Holmes foresaw a time when everything under the sun would be photographed, and, as Ewen writes, “the image would become more important than the object itself…would, in fact, make the object disposable….Form is henceforth divorced from matter.”
I am not sure what exactly Ewen meant by form “henceforth divorced from matter,” but something of the sort seems to obtain for those of our contemporaries who go about snap-shooting everything in sight with cellphone cameras. At a show of Cezanne paintings in Atlanta where I live, there was a fellow who, rather than looking at the paintings, was going from one to another taking pictures of them, as if he feared their escape.
In that exhibition there were a number of pictures of perishable comestibles, favorite subjects of still-life artists: fruits, vegetables, a loaf of bread, a cheese, a freshly killed pheasant, etc. Still lifes which eternize things that routinely enter our mouths and make their ways more or less cheerfully through our digestive tracts are vivid illustrations of Rank’s point about the relation of art to experience.
So is the painted nude. I once asked painter friend why he painted nudes. “Oh, because I like looking at naked women,” he replied candidly, and no doubt he did; but there was obviously more to it than that, since he not only looked but painted. Picasso, judging from his numerous, sometimes salacious, drawings of artists and models in studio scenes, obviously found the male painter’s act of reducing winsome frock-less lasses to small, static, oily images on a canvas as dense with ambiguity as Keats’ bold lover perpetually near the goal but never winning. The psychological effect of painting a nude is as uncanny as painting edibles, or immortalizing a game-winning fly ball.
Back when Internet-surfing was a novelty, I once paused over the Earth and Moon Viewer’s vivid photograph of Earth afloat in velvety black space: a toy marble, blue swirled with white, escaped from a child’s game. I called my wife to have a look. “Makes you feel pretty insignificant, doesn’t it?” said she over my shoulder.
Actually, no. Like any picture, this one, by miniaturizing and framing its subject, mastered it. I knew I was a perishable bundle of protoplasm on that jolly marble, but I didn’t feel that any more than I feel the world is round, or space is infinite. Sitting there in front of my computer screen with my nice cup of green tea I was the lord of all I surveyed, a significant presence in the universe. This was an astonishing failure of imagination, but how common!
THE PAINTER DeKOONING once said while contemplating the night sky with a friend, “The universe gives me the creeps.” A variation, this, on Blaise Pascal’s pensee that infinite space terrified him. Neither man said, though, how often these fits affected him, or how long they lasted. These are significant omissions, if you ask me, because when DeKooning was struggling to create his famous rather tormented expressionist paintings of female subjects as bundles of desire, frustration, and conflict, he would have had things on his mind other than the creepy night sky; and Pascal, a busy man of the world, must have had many pensees to block his awareness of infinite space. Is that not, in fact, the effect of most pensees?
Goethe once remarked that he believed in the immortality of the soul because he could not imagine the end of personal consciousness. Who can? The trouble here, Freud said in “Reflections upon War and Death,” is that trying to imagine the extinction of consciousness requires consciousness.
“Every one of us is convinced in the Unconscious about his own immortality,” Freud said. Young men’s heroics in war celebrated later with medals and encomia as “selfless devotion to abstract general ideals” were better explained, he thought, by the inability of young men to imagine their personal demise. That is probably the best explanation, too, of how many young people behave behind the wheels of automobiles, and their willingness to play American football.
The first time it occurred to me I might die, I was four or five years old. I was standing on the back porch of my parents’ home in Ohio. A very large moving truck had just flattened my pet rabbit when there came swimming up out of the mazy, purling stream of childish consciousness the thought that my fate might eventually resemble the rabbit’s. A second thought came swiftly on the heels of the first: That’s impossible. Freud and Rank would have understood.
Now that I am over seventy years old, it is fitfully clear to me that I am not going to get out of this thing alive, but I am very easily distracted from what I know. I have my projects, and it is as if sun, moon, and stars can’t wait to see how they will turn out. Maybe this is just a rabbit-y creature singing in the dark, but that is not how it seems. The meticulous folderol of having a will drawn up in a lawyer’s office recently was more like a pleasant social occasion than a reminder that the bell is going to toll also for me. One might expect obituaries in the morning paper to stir the memento mori in someone my age, but they’re just entertainment over breakfast coffee, if I notice them at all, rather than pondering the latest scores in the National League.
RANK SAW THE PASSION for “immortalization” at work everywhere in culture and civilization: collective ideologies and symbols, libraries and museums, embalming, monuments, historiography. Looking at the world from a Rankian perspective, one can see the will to transcend time and process in architecture and urban design, family and school reunions, antique collecting, diaries, revivals of 50s or 70s popular music, Elvis imitators, and genealogy studies. That the fixities of Biblical fundamentalism should appeal as strongly as they do to simple minds is not surprising; and the glory of Catholicism, the Minnesota farmer-father of a friend of mine used to tell his son, was that it never changed.
Among American small towns after the Civil War “village improvement associations” intent on correcting the ramshackle add-on and sprawl typical of earlier continental real estate development abounded. Richard Francaviglia in his Main Street Revisited (1996) writes of streetscapes in American towns having taken on by the 1880s “a very stylized and highly standardized appearance. A design inspired by the European folk-village or the postcard-pretty New England town in its prime would govern both new construction and the remodeling of older buildings. (In 1910, Jarvis Hunt proposed a facelift for downtown Wheaton, Illinois, that would have made it a dead ringer for a Tudor village, and such a downtown was actually built, and survives to this day, in the Atlanta suburb of Avondale Estates.)
The associations’ appropriation of that old-timey European word “village” was indicative of a will not only to surmount time and change, but to represent the place one lived as being not just a hodgepodge of buildings and bodies, but a community. Solidarity with one’s fellows, real or imagined, is one of the sturdiest bulwarks against the awareness of mortality. Who was it said that immortal life was never being alone? Considered vis-à-vis the perennial instability of American social arrangements the picturesque downtowns developed by the village improvement associations, with their suggestions of historical continuity and communal coherence and civility, must often have been more invocatory than representative. Nineteenth-century landscape architect Frederick Law Olmsted recalled, late in life, a “simple, unsophisticated, respectable” village of his American boyhood that probably would have acquired by then, he imagined, a soldier’s monument, a fountain, a park and “parklet,” and a reading room for the literary periodicals, and become so altogether quaint-looking as to be “no longer a village at all.”
If urban design is as means of transcending flux and mutability, so is language. Working one summer between college terms as a reporter for the daily newspaper in my hometown, I was aware how frequently the term “community” cropped out in its pages, and how doubtful the reference of the term was to anything in the town’s actual life often. Each day’s edition included a “Community Calendar.” There were articles on “community meetings,” and “community celebrations,” reports on baseball games at “Community Field.” Community-this, community-that.
To think of our town as a “community” may have encouraged contributions to what was then known as the “Community Chest” (later the United Fund), but what people in my hometown did was, for the most part, what Americans did, and do, anywhere else: they went to work, paid their bills, had hobbies and private circles of friends, sent their kids to school, sat in front of screens and speakers, and ignored politics and religion. If some emergency requiring cooperative effort arose, they would pitch in—and maybe even relish the opportunity to do so—but that was not generally what life required of them, and to speak of us as a “community” seemed more commonly the expression of a wish than a reality. Rousseau, in The Social Contract, spoke of a similarly dubious use of language in which people treated “city” and “town” as synonyms. But “city” was cognate with citizenship and civility. “Town” wasn’t. (“Houses make a town, but citizens a city.”) Similarly, a “community” isn’t just an agglomeration of houses and bodies in space, but people doing things together.
AT MY DESK in the newsroom one day I had just run across some reference to “the community” in copy I was reading when it occurred to me that maybe the newspaper was the community. Newsboys rolled the community into a tight little projectile they winged onto your porch every afternoon. A local commonplace was that there was “never anything in the paper,” but when this nothing did not arrive in a timely fashion there were subscribers who became very agitated.
That Ohio in 1880 had thirty-seven colleges, many in small towns situated in what had been frontier territory not long before, struck the president of Columbia University at the time as remarkable, considering there were only three million Ohioans. England with a population of twenty-three million was getting by with four degree-granting institutions.
There were good practical reasons why Ohio towns would have wanted to host colleges. It was not always clear at the time which of these towns were going to survive. Having a college would encourage population growth and capital investment; local business owners could appreciate the value of having a captive population of young consumers in town during the school year; and the religious denomination that often supported college building financially were vying for membership in newly populated regions. Essential, though, to the realization of these practical benefits was the faith of more enlightened Americans in the redeeming personal and social influences of formal education.
The poet Wordsworth told Ralph Waldo Emerson during the latter’s visit to England in 1833 that he thought Americans much too inclined to substitute “tuition”—formal education—for “moral culture,” “social ties,” and “education of circumstances.” American man of letters Paul Goodman was saying roughly the same thing more than a century later when he argued that what American youth needed wasn’t more education, but better experience.
What Emerson failed to comprehend, though, was that in America “tuition,” along with organized religion, seemed the only likely sources of “moral culture,” continental “circumstances” not generally being very useful in that respect. Public support for tax-supported public education in the nineteenth century had swelled in response to barbarism on the frontier, and the appearance of gangs of immigrant “street Arabs” roaming Eastern cities. “The school room was where these young hoodlums belonged….They needed to be civilized and Americanized,” Henry Perkinson wrote in a charmingly ironic little study of the American school, The Imperfect Panacea: American Faith in Education, 1865-1965. During the century Perkinson studies, formal education in America had been represented at one time or another as the key to solving virtually any social problem that arose, whether street gangs, racial injustice, poverty, class inequality, or bad manners.
WHETHER EDUCATION COULD actually yield such benefits was questionable. In the 1830s, Josiah Holbrook, a principal figure in the nineteenth century American School Society, had remarked sensibly enough that it would be “of little consequence to have our country studded with colleges and churches of the most costly and splendid architecture…except as they produce intelligence, virtue, and religion.” But just as the idea of creating a pristine New England-style town center in a raw Western settlement might have maximum psychological value as compensation for the actual life there—so, too, structures of brick and mortar devoted to the cultivation of “intelligence, virtue and religion” might seem especially desirable in socio-economic circumstances with least actual use for these excellences.
Paul Goodman used to get to his feet at public meetings convened to discuss new school construction in New York, and propose modestly that if pupils were to spend less time in classrooms, and more time in city streets studying what went on in cafeterias, movie theaters, stores, museums, and factories, there would be less need for new classrooms. Moreover, street education would be advantageous in diverting attention from the abstraction of subject matter as “curriculum” to uses—a consummation devoutly to be wished, he thought. After Goodman spoke there would be polite silences. Then discussion about building new schools would resume. Goodman felt himself confronted by a mass superstition with a solid architectural foundation.
Georges Bataille thought that the European cathedrals with their attached schools—permanent structures in space—had probably been as critical to the maintenance of medieval orthodoxy as the instruction provided in them.
There is a resemblance between the power of architecture and urban design to render ideologies—or hallucinations—permanent, and primitive cultures’ distillation of their understanding of life in rituals, myths, and plastic representations passed unchanged from one generation to the next. The fundamental human impulse in art, and “culture and civilization” more generally, Rank thought, was to eliminate the “arbitrary and apparently haphazard character from human experience,” an impulse perhaps never stronger than in societies characterized by fragmentation and change.
Serpent Mound in southwestern Ohio, Adams County, is a quarter-mile long coiled earthwork snake, one of numerous snake or serpent effigies in the United States prehistoric Indians crafted of mounded earth or stone. There were Indian burial sites near Serpent Mound at one time, and evidence of rituals having been performed at this sacred site.
Speculations about what Serpent Mound may have meant to the Indians have not been wanting. What appear to be the open jaws of the Serpent are evidently about to devour a second, small, detached oval mound. An egg? Or the sun? Serpent Mound is aligned with the setting sun at the summer solstice, and somewhat less clearly with the rising sun at the winter solstice, so maybe it was a primitive calendar like Stonehenge? A nineteenth century pastor, Reverend Landon West of Pleasant Hill, Ohio, saw the oval object near the snake’s mouth as the Forbidden Fruit. Serpent Mound, he said, was God’s reminder that the Garden of Eden had been situated in aptly-named Adams County.
Whatever Serpent Mound may have meant for the Indians, it clearly connected them with what Rank refers to as a second permanent reality “next above, parallel with, or inside the first”—a reality beyond quotidian life of the kind found everywhere in “culture and civilization.” The thread running through art forms primitive or sophisticated, ancient or modern, with or without religious associations or any expressed connection with the idea of immortal life, is a will to surmount transient Nature, to invest human experience with a transcendent value that, taken at face value, it scarcely deserves.
Considered in this light, Serpent Mound resembles in its own way that vision of the cosmos commonly entertained by learned people during the medieval and early Renaissance periods that pictured God, the angels, and the primum mobile above the fixed and eternal stars, with the planets below rotating in concentric circles around the unmoving Earth superintended by its overlord, Man. Whatever basis this conception of the universe had in observation, it was most obviously the fruit of humanity’s seemingly innate sense its own (and Earth’s) transcendent significance.
E.M.W. TILLYARD NOTES without comment in The Elizabethan World Picture the curiosity that while most educated English in the later sixteenth century would have been quite aware of the new sun-centered astronomy of Copernicus, the old imaginative view of the earth-centered cosmos had continued to influence period literature. One interpretation of this would be that the Elizabethans were just stubbornly refusing to give up a congenial fantasy. A second, more compelling one would be that the Elizabethans were more capable than people generally are today of distinguishing between an empirical view of Nature, and the kind of totalistic metaphysical imagining inspired by religious faith, that a metaphysical One, an Unmoved Mover, underlies and governs multiplicity. Faith liberates the imagination to envision relationships in Nature other than those which are simply factual. It would not necessarily have seemed contradictory to an Elizabethan to embrace the Copernican revolution in astronomy, on the one hand, while continuing to subscribe to the non-empirical, holistic medieval view of the Creation on the other. Rank thought that to complain that there was nothing “realistic” or “scientific” about the old medieval microcosmic-macrocosmic universe, the “great chain of Being,” etc. was to miss the point. The “macrocosmization” of the earth and humanity, rather than being an inferior version of what modern astronomy tells us, was superior to it as the expression of an that “idealism a priori anchored beyond all [physical] reality.”
That said, Rank’s interest as a scientist was in these totalistic anthropomorphic visions as “internal phantom experiences” providing therapeutic relief from “life itself,” and the “fear that is inseparable from real life and experience.” The psychological effect of these visions was the same as that of other “eternizing” experiences contemplated in this essay. Rank wrote:
Everything that is consoling in life…therapeutic in the broad sense—can only be illusional.”
The arts, like the religions with which they have been so often associated, or which they have supplanted, look beyond the “real” to the “unreal.” Transcendence has “never been real and can never be made real.”
One wonders, though. Whence this seemingly universal experience-defying predisposition to form and permanence that finds expression in so many and various ways? Why do we want to fixate things by taking pictures, or making pictures, of them? Why transform living, perishable things into still-lifes? Why is it so difficult to maintain a steady awareness of our mortality? Considering the manifold expressions of the “eternizing” instinct, and the magnification of human significance they yield—and recalling the ancient wisdom that God or the gods only speak to humanity from behind the veils of imaginal forms—to envision these “internal phantom experiences” as intimations of immortality is tempting.
James Gallant is an independent scholar, the Fortnightly‘s “Verisimilitudes” columnist, and the author of The Big Bust at Tyrone’s Rooming House: A Novel of Atlanta and Whatever Happened to Debbie and Phil? (forthcoming from Vagabondage). He has also written a collection of stories about historical classical guitarists, including Francesco Roberto, published in The Fortnightly Review.
Note: Minor edits after publication to correct editorial errors.