sinking into sand

reading The Rings of Saturn (1)

In the opening of The Rings of Saturn the narrator tells us about Janine Dakyns, an unmarried lecturer in Roman languages. Janine is doing research on Flaubert, and is especially interested in his scruples – Flaubert, according to Janine -was convinced that everything he had written was a string of the most abyssmal errors and lies. Flaubert felt as if he was sinking into sand, and, this, she continues:

is probably the reason that sand possessed such significance in all of Flaubert’s work. Sand conquered all.

Janine describes Flaubert as melancholic. And as we go on reading, the melancholy is transferred to Janine herself:

once when I remarked that sitting there amidst her papers she resembled the angel in Dürer’s Melancholia, steadfast among the instruments of destruction, her response was that the apparent chaos surrounding her represented in reality a perfect kind of order, or an order which at least tended towards perfection.

Albrecht Dürer: Melencolia I, (1514) Engraving

The Metropolitan Museum of Art says: Melencolia I is a depiction of the intellectual situation of the artist and is thus, by extension, a spiritual self-portrait of Dürer. In medieval philosophy, each individual was thought to be dominated by one of the four humors; melancholy, associated with black gall, was the least desirable of the four, and melancholics were considered most likely to succumb to insanity. Renaissance thought, however, also linked melancholy with creative genius; thus, at the same time that this idea changed the status of this humor, it made the self-conscious artist aware of the terrible risks that came with his gift.

The winged personification of Melancholy, seated dejectedly with her head resting on her hand, holds a caliper and is surrounded by other tools associated with geometry, the one of the seven liberal arts that underlies artistic creation—and the one through which Dürer hoped to approach perfection in his own work. An influential treatise, De occulta philosophia of Cornelius Agrippa of Nettesheim, almost certainly known to Dürer, probably holds the explanation for the number I in the title: creativity in the arts was the realm of the imagination, considered the first and lowest in the hierarchy of the three categories of genius. The next was the realm of reason, and the highest the realm of the spirit. It is ironic that this image of the artist, paralyzed and powerless, should exemplify Dürer’s own artistic power at its superlative height.


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