Not having much to write around music and sound these days, I turned to painting and poetry, philosophy and allegory. I knew I would found my way back into listening. Here are some initial notes, only a beginning:
Poetry, oil on canvas, c. 1641
Poetry holds a notebook and a quill. She is just about to write something, but glances backwards, toward me, with brooding eyes. Is that page the space of knowing that some truth somewhere exists? Have I just caught her writing? Is poetry that space caught between my guessing and her glance? Is poetry that woman’s face?
Philosophy is also troubled, his face so dark. He does not write though, his words have been written already – carved, it seems: ‘Aut tace Aut loquere meliora silentio’. ‘Keep silent unless what you are going to say is more important than silence’. Is philosophy this constant oscillation between an absolute silence, and the tension to say something so heavy that is heavier and more loaded than silence?
As it were, the real titles of these paintings are not Poetry and Philosophy, but Lucrezia as Poetry and Self-Portrait as Philosophy. The Italian 17th-century painter Salvator Rosa, author of both paintings, used a portrait of his lover alongside his self-portrait to give shape to his allegorical representations of Poetry and Philosophy. As if the two could not be without a relationship, a tension in between. It is not ‘poetry’ and ‘philosophy’ as absolute categories that he seems most concerned with, but poetry in the face of Lucrezia, philosophy in the shape of Salvator. Unique human beings, lovers; their glances and their gestures, engaging in a silent dialogue, outlining a changeable territory of seduction, and breakups, and attractions.
Looking for singular faces and catching the singular expressions of my Lucrezia Poetry and of my Salvator Philosophy, I imagine the possible words between them, or between me and each of them. I think of their singular expressions, one by one, I lose myself in a word, or in an inflection of the eye, rather than looking for any universal meaning or lines of demarcation beyond them. I am thrilled when I realise that a certain black in Salvator’s eyes is the same hue as Lucrezia’s. Or that they might share the sky above. Or that he is stuck in the immobility of his frontal posture, while she is all torsion and enclosed dynamism.
Both paintings are known to art historians as allegories. So: allegory. I could start with a Medieval saying:
Littera gesta docet,
Quod credas allegoria
. . . . .
The literal sense teaches what happened,
The allegorical what you believe
. . . . .
And with the excuse of being Italian, I would move to one of my favourite writers with no further justification: Dante Alighieri. In the Letter to Can Grande della Scala, he writes of the Divine Comedy: ‘The subject of the whole work, then, taken literally, is the state of souls after death, understood in a simple sense; for the movement of the whole work turns upon this and about this’.
For the movement of the whole work turns upon this and about this: the literal side, understood in a simple sense. What is remarkable is the emphasis on the literal truth as a foundation for any other levels of meaning. So perhaps I should look at these two paintings again in detail, and not think of Poetry and Philosophy at all, but of the faces and the bodies of Lucrezia and Salvator: literally. They seem to be inscribed in the same shade of grey, although more or less abstract in form. What happens when a poem is inscribed within a philosophical text? When thought flows into poetry?
I go back to another book by Dante. The Convivio is a treatise dedicated to Lady Philosophy; it is a book on knowledge, and it is full of poems. Furthermore, it is written in volgare, not in Latin: in 14thcentury Italy, Latin was the language of philosophy and vulgar was the language of the people, of songs, of poems. Philosophy is impersonated as a woman Dante loves; the proximity between philosophy and poetry is resolved by intersecting the argument in the text with a number of poems, and through a metaphor in which knowledge is a banquet, and the food is poetry, and the bread that goes with it is philosophy.
One of the poems in the Convivio, entitled Amor che nella mente mi ragiona, Love that converses with me inside my mind, ends up like this:
My song, it seems you speak contrary to
Words spoken by a sister whom you have;
For this lady, whom you claim to be so humble,
She calls proud and disdainful.
You know the sky is always bright
and clear, and of itself is never clouded.
And yet our eyes, for many reasons,
Sometimes say a star is dark.
Likewise when she calls her proud,
She views her not according to the truth
But only as what she seems to her.
For my soul was full of fear,
And still is, so much that everything I see
Seems proud, when she casts her gaze on me.
So excuse yourself, should the need arise;
And when you can, present yourself to her
And say: ‘My Lady, if it is your wish,
I will speak of you in every place’.
Canzone, e’ par che tu parli contraro
al dir d’una sorella che tu hai;
che questa donna, che tanto umil fai,
ella la chiama fera e disdegnosa.
Tu sai che ‘l ciel sempr’è lucente e chiaro,
e quanto in sé, non si turba già mai;
ma li nostri occhi, per cagioni assai,
chiaman la stella talor tenebrosa.
Così, quand’ella la chiama orgogliosa,
non considera lei secondo il vero,
ma pur secondo quel ch’a lei parea:
ché l’anima temea, e teme ancora, sì che mi par fero
quantunqu’io veggio là ‘v’ella mi senta.
Così ti scusa, se ti fa mestero;
e quando poi a lei ti rappresenta,
dirai: ‘Madonna, s’ello v’è a grato,
io parlerò di voi in ciascun lato’.
‘I will speak of you in every place’: could I think of the space opening up between philosophy and poetry as the space of speech? An utterance that is not necessarily delivered to destination, but that resounds nonetheless, and forms a space, makes the form of its understanding?
Now I think of Pier Paolo Pasolini in the Protestant Cemetery in Rome, near the tombs of Antonio Gramsci and Percy Bysshe Shelley, before he wrote his poem The Ashes of Gramsci. Published in 1952, the poem breathed an elegiac and sensuous feel into the tight structure of a Dantesque terza rima. In these verses, Pasolini appears constantly torn between the moving force of thinking as a changing form and the pressing call of his aesthetic inclinations as the making of a shape.
Like Pasolini sitting in the Protestant cemetery and speaking out the words of Gramsci and the words of Shelley through his own verses, wondering how the words of the two could breathe and exist in the same ancient rhythm, what is spoken out appears as a space of osmotic exchange that brings poetry and philosophy together and makes them alive: resounding.
… – thus lives the I: I
alive, eluding life, while the feeling grows
of a life becoming grieving
violent oblivion … Ah how well
I understand, silent in the wind’s wet
humming, here where Rome is silent,
among wearily agitated cypresses,
next to you, Spirit whose inscription resounds
… vive l’io: io,
vivo, eludendo la vita, con nel petto
il senso di una vita che sia oblio
accorante, violento… Ah come
capisco, muto nel fradicio brusio
del vento, qui dov’è muta Roma,
tra i cipressi stancamente sconvolti,
presso te, l’anima il cui graffito suona