Monday, October 25, 2010

Pre-Election Provocations


Obama has been excoriated for pointing to the genuine stupidity of the right wing. Jean Baudrillard had a similar view in his book
America, which has just been reissued. This review is by PD Smith and was published in The Guardian on Saturday, October 23, 2010

"Where the others spend their time in libraries, I spend mine in the deserts and on the roads." Jean Baudrillard's travel diary of his time in America was first published in 1986 and has been reissued with a new introduction by Geoff Dyer. Written while Reagan was president, Baudrillard's provocative account of this "obsessional society" remains relevant. From the "steepling gentleness" of New York's skyscrapers to the "limitless horizontality" of Los Angeles, he explores this New World, where the carpets have an "orgasmic elasticity" and the people are "like shadows that have escaped from Plato's cave". The crowded cities are "electrifying" and "cinematic", but in the deserts Baudrillard finds a serene emptiness. For all its strangeness, America is "an amazing place". The book is sometimes Delphic ("Americans believe in facts, but not in facticity"), frequently brilliant ("there is nothing more mysterious than a TV set left on in an empty room"), but always original, memorable and even funny: "Americans may have no identity, but they do have wonderful teeth." [Ironically there was also a long article in this weekend's Observer about the new fashion of having a slight gap between one's front teeth, thanks to model Lara Stone.]

The phrases that haunt me from this review are the description of "shadows that have escaped from Plato's cave" and "lack of identity". There seems to be a lockstep mentality at work in the USA, no matter what one's political persuasion. And it's not limited to politics, but active in business, religion and other institutions. Scary.

There was a programme on BBC 2 last night about Hieronymous Bosch's "Garden of Earthly Delights", which also mentioned his "Adoration of the Magi" and "The Hay Wain". I couldn't help thinking that the "Garden" was a portrait of America; and that the three paintings show what happens to religion, to morality and coherence when the work of silence and the notion of beholding have vanished. Bosch was painting at a time just before the Reformation (1505) when the insistence on conforming one's interior life to the stereotyped formulas and images promulgated by the church was reaching a critical mass. The emphasis was on observance and manufacturing artificial religious emotions; one might say the Counter-Reformation began before the Reformation itself.

[Significant, perhaps, that at this time there were women who revolted against this oppressive spirituality, who were being chastised by their confessors for their clandestine reading of Marguerite Porete, who had been burned as a heretic in 1310; and nuns were still making copies of Porete's work.]

Not only does the "Garden" reflect the cultural ADHD of the present day but Bosch's smiling caricature of himself with tree-legs and a hollow interior containing only artifice is telling. When the balance of silence is absent, not only does religion become depraved and life nonsensical, even nature itself is undone [this notion of the importance of the absence of silence in religion applied to these paintings is my interpretation, not the presenter's]. The presenter pointed to the emergence of the demonic from the unconscious, and the chaos of thoughts, but if there is no practice of or connection to silence where such nightmares can find healing, how could it be otherwise in an oppressive and repressive religious situation?

And perhaps the creepiest aspect of these paintings, as the presenter Matthew Collings pointed out, is that everything is painted with such profound beauty.

2 Comments:

Blogger Bo said...

Quite so. Not being an American I feel I am in no position to comment, though I could have done without last night's dream about Christine O'Donnell...! It's only our intrinsically phlegmatic quality that stops the UK going the same way.

9:43 am, October 26, 2010  
Blogger Sr. Valerie said...

Bosch's "Garden of Earthly Delights" is a nightmare. I can find no delight therein! I looked up the complete triptych online and find it ghastly. I find our national discourse equally ghastly. How did we as a nation ever descend to this? Or, were we always this way? The political rhetoric is filled with personal attacks, falsehoods, fear-mongering, anger, ridicule--you name it. It's utterly appalling. And to think, there are hundreds of thousands of people who listen to the most outrageous rhetoric spewed out by conservative, right-wing talking heads who shout down the voices of everyone else, hour after hour, day after day, thanks to Fox News and other 'news' channels.

2:34 am, October 27, 2010  

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