September 24, 2003

I recently saw a wonderful Chinese movie, Shower (1999). The subtitles are a bit hard to read, but it’s a great story, contrasting traditional China with modern China.

Zen Anger “Don’t just do something! Stand there!”

Greetings When you meet someone you know, you usually say, “how are you doing?” If the person is a disciple of Zen, however, you should perhaps ask, “how are you breathing?” And if the person is a disciple of Jung, you should ask, “how are you dreaming?”

The Cost of Living “Time is money”, according to the old saying. This implies that you can make money in a given period of time. But what if the situation were reversed, what if it were necessary to spend money in order to exist for a given period of time? Imagine someone saying, “I plan to die at 75 because I can’t afford to live any longer than that.”

1. Henry James

Our book group recently discussed The Turn of the Screw, by Henry James. Several people had missed the previous discussion (on Jung’s autobiography), perhaps because of summer travels. We spent some time discussing Jung, and everyone agreed that Jung’s autobiography was a marvelous book — a mind-blowing, jaw-dropping book. Jung seems to be the prophet of our time, the writer who moves people most and impresses people most, as Nietzsche was the prophet of a century ago.

Most people in the group felt as I did about The Turn of the Screw: the ornate, wordy style makes the book painful to read, or at least less pleasurable than it would otherwise be. It’s a ghost story, and since I’m interested in ghosts, and think that ghosts probably exist, the story engaged me. Critical opinion is sharply divided about The Turn of the Screw: according to one view, the ghosts are real, and Henry James believed in ghosts; this view might be called the occult view, or the Jungian view. According to another view, the ghosts are hallucinations of the governess-narrator; this view might be called the rationalist view, or the Freudian view.

Here’s an example of James’ style: “My question had a sarcastic force that I had not fully intended, and it made her after a moment inconsequently break down.”1 My objection to this sentence (and to James’ style in general) is that it is obscure. The word “inconsequently” is unnecessary, it muddies the water. Mark Twain said that if you see an adverb, kill it, and “inconsequently” is richly deserving of death. “But you just used an adverb yourself! ‘Richly’ is an adverb, isn’t it?” Perhaps it is, I know nothing about grammar, but I do know that “richly deserving” is a common expression, easily understood, while “inconsequently” is an unusual word, almost never heard in spoken English, and “inconsequently break down” is a strange, obscure phrase.

Here’s another example of James’ style: “It was impossible to have given less encouragement than he had administered to such a doctrine.”2 This sentence would be clearer, easier for the reader to grasp, if James had written “it was impossible to have given less encouragement than he had given...” Repetition is easier for the reader to grasp than variety, and repeating the word “given” makes the sentence clearer than replacing “given” with “administered”. Furthermore, who ever heard of ‘administering encouragement to a doctrine’?

One final example: “I dare say I fancied myself in short a remarkable young woman and took comfort in the faith that this would more publicly appear.”3 This sentence is wordy, in my view, and could be improved by deleting the phrase “in short”. “But the phrase ‘in short’ is needed for the sake of summing up and concluding.” Then move ‘in short’ to the start of the sentence, and delete “I dare say”, so the sentence would run: “In short, I fancied myself a remarkable young woman...” James forfeits the right to use the phrase “in short” because he’s never “short”, he always chooses to take the long way around. James’ prose has no music, no rhythm, no force. James’ prose is obscure, and for a writer, obscurity is the sin against the Holy Ghost, the sin for which there is no forgiveness.

James’ style may have become even more obscure after he wrote The Turn of the Screw. His brother, William, struggled to understand one of Henry’s late works, The Wings of the Dove. William said that he read “many pages and innumerable sentences twice over to see what the dickens they could possibly mean.”3B

William also struggled with The Golden Bowl, the last novel that Henry completed. While admitting Henry’s “extreme success in this book,” William wished that Henry would “sit down and write a new book, with... no psychological commentaries, and absolute straightness in the style. Publish it in my name, I will acknowledge it, and give you half the proceeds.”3C

An Englishman once asked Tocqueville, “What do you consider your Golden Age?” Tocqueville responded, “The latter part of the seventeenth century.... Style then was the mere vehicle of thought. First of all to be perspicuous, and then being perspicuous, to be concise, was all they aimed at.... In the eighteenth century... ornament was added.”4 A writer should aim to be clear and concise, he should aim to communicate something to the reader. Henry James, however, seems to regard style as an end itself, not as a vehicle of thought. Unlike all other English writers, James inserts a space within contractions; for example, James writes did n’t instead of didn’t. He’s so wordy that he can’t resist the opportunity to make two words out of one!

But whatever flaws he may have, James deserves our respect because he had high regard for literature, and because he made a lasting contribution to literature. The James family (Henry, William, and Alice) is one of the most talented families in literary history. Every writer we read, like every person we meet, has some traits that annoy us, but these annoying traits shouldn’t blind us to their virtues. The style of James’ earlier works (the works written before The Turn of the Screw) is clearer. One of these earlier works, The Portrait of a Lady, is said to be his masterpiece, and until I read that book, I can’t give my opinion of James as a novelist.

Now our book group is reading Joseph Conrad’s The Nigger of the “Narcissus”. After reading James, Conrad is like a breath of fresh air because his prose is straightforward. Conrad is in touch with life, in touch with earthy reality (or perhaps I should say, “watery reality”). James, on the other hand, seems detached from life, and this may explain his preoccupation with language-for-its-own-sake.

2. Panofsky on Michelangelo

A. The Archers

Since our book group has recently read two short books (both The Turn of the Screw and The Nigger of the “Narcissus” are only about 100 pages long), I had some time for “private reading”, so I went back to my old friend, the art historian Erwin Panofsky. Studies in Iconology: Humanistic Themes in the Art of the Renaissance deals with Michelangelo and other Renaissance artists. It contains numerous illustrations, but (alas!) none of them are in color.

Panofsky discusses a drawing by Michelangelo, the Saettatori (Archers). He describes it as “nine nude figures, two of them women, shooting arrows at a target suspended before the breast of a herm.” Perhaps the most striking thing about the drawing is that the “archers” are empty-handed; they hold neither bows nor arrows. Some have supposed that Michelangelo meant to include bows and arrows, but left the drawing unfinished. Panofsky, however, argues that bows and arrows were left out intentionally, left out in order to convey “a definite idea. Some of the figures run, some actually float towards the target, others break down; it is as though they were under the spell of an irresistible power which makes them act as though they were shooting, while in reality they themselves are darts.”5

Why would Michelangelo portray archers as though they were arrows? To answer this question, Panofsky draws upon a subject that is at the heart of his method: philosophy. He points out that Michelangelo was a literary man as well as an artist, that Michelangelo’s “worship and scholarly knowledge of Dante was a byword”, that Michelangelo’s own writings “fairly bristle with reminiscences of Petrarch.”6 During Michelangelo’s time, an important school of philosophy was the Neoplatonic school, and this school left a deep impression on Michelangelo; “Michelangelo’s poetry is full of ‘Platonic’ conceptions.”7

The leaders of the Neoplatonic school in Italy were Marsilio Ficino and Pico della Mirandola. Panofsky describes this school as “a philosophical system which must be reckoned among the boldest intellectual structures ever erected by the human mind. This system had its origin in the ‘Platonic Academy’ of Florence, a select group of men held together by mutual friendship, a common taste for conviviality and human culture, [and] an almost religious worship of Plato.”8 The Academy always came together on November 7, to celebrate the day of Plato’s birth and death. Panofsky says that the Academy had three main goals:

  1. To translate Platonic works into Latin, and write commentaries on them. These works included not only Plato’s own writings, but also the writings of Plotinus, Proclus, and others, including the famous alchemist known as “Hermes Trismegistos”. (If we divide philosophy into spiritualism and materialism, the Platonic Academy is certainly on the side of spiritualism, as were the New England Transcendentalists of a later age.)
  2. To organize these Platonic texts into a philosophical system, a system “capable of instilling a new meaning into the entire cultural heritage of the period, into Virgil and Cicero, as well as into St. Augustine and Dante, into classical mythology as well as into physics, astrology and medicine.”9
  3. To bring this philosophical system into harmony with Christianity. Here’s an example of the Christian-izing of Plato: Ficino says that Plato’s theory of reincarnation is an anticipation of the Christian idea of resurrection — not a different theory, but rather the same theory in a different guise.10

The Neoplatonics had an affinity not only for alchemy, but also for astrology. They believed that “every human being, beast, plant or mineral is influenced... by one or more of the celestial bodies. It is the influence of Mars which distinguishes a wolf from a lion (the latter being a solar animal).”11 Like Jung, the Neoplatonics were interested in both astrology and alchemy; one might say that the Neoplatonics were interested in the occult in general (as Jung was). A philosophy that stresses the occult and the spiritual seems appropriate for an artist like Michelangelo, just as a philosophy that stresses the material is appropriate for a scientist.

Though the Neoplatonics may remind one of Jung in certain respects, they differ from Jung insofar as they draw a sharp distinction between matter and spirit. Like many Western philosophies, Neoplatonism viewed matter as lifeless. Like many Eastern philosophies, Jung viewed matter as possessing some degree of life, energy, spirit.12 Hence Jung saw matter and spirit, body and soul, as part of one continuum, one universe. The Neoplatonics regarded the body as inferior to the soul, a burden to the soul; Ficino defined man as “a rational soul participating in the divine mind, employing a body.... [Man’s] immortal soul is always miserable in the body.”13 The soul is “filled with an unending nostalgia ultimately to be satisfied only when it ‘returns whence it came.’”14

I enjoy Panofsky’s works because they combine art and philosophy — indeed, they combine all branches of the humanities. Panofsky is a deep thinker and a learned scholar, and his work is suffused with a love of culture. He’s the only writer I ever read who quoted a hand-written marginal note, a note made by an anonymous reader centuries ago; discussing the Neoplatonic effort to Christian-ize Plato, Panofsky says that in “the Princeton copy [of a Neoplatonic book] an early sixteenth-century hand has added in margine” a note that associates Plato’s idea of reincarnation with the Christian idea of resurrection.15

Though the Platonic Academy of Florence isn’t one of the most original schools of Western philosophy, they’re one of the few social schools of philosophy since Greco-Roman times (contrasting sharply with solitary philosophers like Schopenhauer and Nietzsche), and their influence was enormous. Plato’s Symposium deals with love, and Ficino wrote a well-known commentary on Plato’s Symposium. Ficino’s commentary inspired many contemporary writers to compose dialogues on love, the most famous of which is The Courtier, by Castiglione. (Shakespeare wrote a Latin preface for the English translation of The Courtier.) Everybody was talking about love; “what had been an esoteric philosophy became a kind of social game so that ‘finally the courtiers thought it an indispensable part of their job to know how many and what kinds of love there were.’”16

Like Ficino, Pico della Mirandola wrote about love, and Panofsky found a passage in one of Pico’s writings on love that may have inspired Michelangelo’s Saettatori, may have inspired Michelangelo to portray archers as though they were arrows. Following Plato, Pico says that “the good is the object of every desire.... All creatures must have a certain aim in which they find whatever happiness is within the scope of their capacities; and they naturally turn and direct themselves to this aim as every heavy body to its center.” Pico regards this Platonic gravitation as “a great testimony to the divine providence by which such creatures are directed toward their aim as the dart of the archer is directed towards its target, which target is not known to the dart, but only to him who drives it towards the same with the eye of fore-seeing wisdom.”17 Panofsky doesn’t say that Pico’s remarks definitely inspired the Saettatori, he merely says that this is a better explanation of this strange drawing than any of the explanations yet offered.

Panofsky’s discussion of the Saettatori is an example of Panofsky’s approach to art, an example of what Panofsky calls “iconology”. Panofsky tries to find the meaning of a work by looking at its philosophical and literary context.

B. The Saturnine and the Jovial

Now let’s turn from a little-known drawing to a famous pair of statues, Michelangelo’s statues of Giuliano and Lorenzo de’ Medici. The Medici are portrayed sitting above their tombs at San Lorenzo in Florence. Michelangelo didn’t try to depict the Medici as they actually were; “a thousand years from now,” he said, “who will care if the statues are good likenesses?”18

Panofsky says that the two images are “so impersonal in character as to astonish Michelangelo’s contemporaries.... They portray the immortalized souls of the deceased rather than their empirical personality.”19 The statue of Lorenzo represents the contemplative life, and is referred to as the Pensieroso (or Pensoso), while the statue of Giuliano represents the active life. Neoplatonic thinkers (like Ficino and Pico) often debated the relative merits of the active life and the contemplative life. They believed that both approaches could lead to bliss, both approaches could enable people to transcend animal urges, and transcend the sordid aspects of life.

The distinction between the active life and the contemplative life was not only ethical, it was also psychological; some people were born for action, some for contemplation. Astrology taught that if you were born under Saturn, you were contemplative and “saturnine”, and if you were born under Jupiter, you were active and “jovial”. “The characters of the Saturnian and the Jovial,” writes Panofsky, “bear an unmistakable resemblance with what modern psychologists call the ‘introvert’ and the ‘extrovert’ type.... The contemplative Saturnian is ‘closed to the world;’ he is morose, taciturn, entirely concentrated upon his own self, a friend of solitude and darkness, and avaricious or at least parsimonious. The active Jovial is ‘open to the world;’ he is alert, eloquent, companionable, interested in his fellow-beings, and unlimitedly generous.”20

The terms “introvert” and “extrovert” were first set forth in Jung’s book, Psychological Types. Jung says that introverts have a tendency toward melancholy.21 Although Jung’s theory resembles the old division between “saturnines” and “jovials”, I don’t recall any mention in Jung’s book of Saturn and Jupiter.

How has Michelangelo depicted the Saturnian and the Jovial characters? “Like the face of Dürer’s Melencolia, the face of the ‘Penseroso’ is darkened by a heavy shadow.... The index finger of his left hand covers his mouth with the gesture of Saturnian silence. His elbow rests on a closed cash-box, a typical symbol of Saturnian parsimony; and, to make the symbolism still more explicit, the front of this cash-box is adorned with the head of a bat, the emblematic animal of Dürer’s engraving Melencolia I.... Giuliano, on the other hand, holds a princely scepter and with his open left he offers two coins.... contrasting him who ‘spends’ himself in outward action with him who ‘shuts himself off’ in self-centered contemplation.”22

The old astrologers said that to be born under Saturn was the worst of fates, but the Neoplatonists argued that Saturn’s influence could make one an intellectual, even a genius. They recalled Aristotle’s remark that all geniuses are melancholy, and they developed the modern concept of genius.23 (One is reminded of Wittkower’s book, Born under Saturn; the character and conduct of artists.)

The Neoplatonic philosophy appealed to Michelangelo for three reasons:

  1. it appealed to his proclivity for passionate but platonic love affairs — love affairs with people of both sexes
  2. it developed the concept of the inspired genius, harking back to Plato’s view of genius as “divine madness”
  3. it provided a philosophical explanation for Michelangelo’s feeling of dissatisfaction with reality
“Among all his contemporaries,” writes Panofsky, “Michelangelo was the only one who adopted Neoplatonism not in certain aspects but in its entirety, and not as a convincing philosophical system, let alone as the fashion of the day, but as a metaphysical justification of his own self. His own emotional experiences, reaching their first climax in his love for Tommaso Cavalieri, and their second in his friendship with Vittoria Colonna, approached the idea of Platonic love in its unadulterated sense. While the Neoplatonic belief in the ‘presence of the spiritual in the material’ lent a philosophical background to his aesthetic and amorous enthusiasm for beauty, the opposite aspect of Neoplatonism, the interpretation of human life as an unreal, derivative and tormenting form of existence comparable to a life in Hades, was in harmony with that unfathomable dissatisfaction with himself and the universe which is the very signature of Michelangelo’s genius.”24

Perhaps one of my readers is thinking, “That reminds me of someone... The Neoplatonists viewed life as suffering, as Hell... They thought that you could transcend this Hell through contemplation... They stressed the role of genius... That reminds me of... Schopenhauer!” The correspondences between Neoplatonism and Schopenhauer are striking, and one wonders if Schopenhauer was exposed to Neoplatonic ideas at an early age.

C. Christian vs. Classical in Michelangelo

If dissatisfaction with himself and the universe is the “very signature of Michelangelo’s genius”, if (as Panofsky says) Michelangelo’s figures display neither repose nor joy, we may well ask “what is the source of this disquiet, this restlessness, this dissatisfaction? Is it entirely a matter of temperament?” Panofsky says that this disquiet is the result not only of temperament, but also of the tension between the Classical ideal and the Christian ideal. In making this argument, Panofsky draws upon an earlier art historian, Morey; just as artists often borrow from other artists, so too art historians often borrow from other art historians. “Michelangelo’s powerful inhibited figures,” wrote Morey, “reflect the disparity between Christian emotion and the antique ideal, free human will and the will of God: the rational forms of classic sculpture were not made for the ecstasy of a Christian mystic, they writhe in the possession of an unfamiliar spirit and betray by brutal distortion, incongruous proportions and discordant composition the force of the collision of medieval Christianity with the Renaissance.”25

In an earlier issue of Phlit, we discussed Panofsky’s view that the Baroque period, like the Renaissance, was torn between the Classical ideal and the Christian ideal. As you become familiar with a writer like Panofsky, you find the same ideas popping up in different books. Panofsky ends his Michelangelo essay with some remarks on the tension between Classical and Christian. He says that the Baroque resolved this tension by focusing on the inner world, by taking a subjective approach: “the very principle of reality was shifted to the subjective human consciousness.”26 An example of Baroque subjectivity is Descartes, who looked within and said, “cogito ergo sum (I think therefore I am).” Another example is Cervantes; as I wrote years ago in my book of aphorisms, “Instead of depicting imaginary incidents, as earlier writers did, Cervantes depicts the imagination itself. Cervantes doesn’t depict the world as it is, but rather the world as it is perceived.”27

Now Panofsky takes this view a step further, now he goes beyond where he went in his essay on the Baroque. Panofsky says that the subjective attitude, which began during the Baroque period, “tended towards a gradual disintegration both of Christian faith and classical humanity, the results of which are very much in evidence in the world of today.”28 The most striking feature of contemporary culture is its nihilism. We’ve lost faith in both the Christian ideal and the Classical ideal; now we have no faith, no ideal. In the last issue of Phlit, I suggested four new ideals, all of which are distinct from the Christian and the Classical.

In Michelangelo’s last years, he resolved the tension between Christian and Classical by surrendering to Christianity. Such late conversions are common; Wagner, for example, became pious during his last years, and so did Newton. Panofsky says that Michelangelo’s “very latest works, beginning with the Crucifixion of St. Peter in the Paolina Chapel and paralleled by the sonnets in which he deplores his earlier interest in the ‘fables of the world’ and takes his refuge to Christ, show an incorporeal transparency and a frozen intensity evocative of medieval art, and in several instances the actual use of Gothic prototypes can be observed.”29

D. Panofsky on Michelangelo: Final Thoughts

Panofsky is a great art historian because he can recognize what is interesting, what is profound. For example, after discussing the influence of Neoplatonism on Michelangelo, he contrasts Michelangelo with Leonardo, and says that Leonardo “professed a philosophy diametrically the opposite of Neoplatonism.”30 While Michelangelo portrays the soul struggling against the bondage of matter, Leonardo’s figures are calm — neither suffering nor inhibited. While Michelangelo believed that the soul was imprisoned by the body, Leonardo believed that the body was imprisoned by the soul.

Leonardo’s remarks closely resemble Freud’s remarks on the death-instinct; Leonardo viewed death as “the deliverance and repatriation of the elements which are set free when the soul has ceased to bind them together.”31 “[Man] does not realize that he wishes for his own destruction,” wrote Leonardo. “But this wish is the quintessence, the very spirit of the elements, which finds itself imprisoned by the soul.”32 Did Leonardo perceive only the death-instinct? Was he blind to the life-instinct? Or did he discuss the life-instinct elsewhere in his writings, in a passage that Panofsky was unaware of, or chose not to discuss?

“A soul which forgets,” said Plato, “cannot be ranked among genuine philosophic natures... the philosopher should have a good memory.”33 Vasari tells us that “Michelangelo was a man of tenacious and profound memory, so that, on seeing the works of others only once, he remembered them perfectly and could avail himself of them in such a manner that scarcely anyone has ever noticed it.”34 The more I study visual art, the more I’m surprised at how often artists borrow from other artists, and use postures and images that have been used before. Michelangelo used his retentive memory to amass a collection of postures and images, which he used in his own works. One wonders if a good memory is characteristic of philosophers only (as Plato suggested); perhaps a good memory always accompanies genius, or perhaps a good memory always accompanies introverted genius, or introversion in general. In his book Psychological Types, Jung says that the extrovert has a bad memory, implying that the introvert has a good memory.35

© L. James Hammond 2003
visit Phlit home page
make a donation via PayPal

1. The Turn of the Screw (Norton Critical Edition, edited by D. Esch and J. Warren, paperback), ch. 16, p. 59 back
2. ibid, ch. 13, p. 52 back
3. ibid, ch. 3, p. 15 back
3B. See Robert D. Richardson’s biography of William James, Ch. 70 back
3C. Richardson biography, Ch. 79. I changed a question-mark to a period. back
4. Correspondence and Conversations of Alexis de Tocqueville With N. W. Senior, 8/26/50 back
5. ch. 6, p. 226 (Harper Torchbooks) back
6. ch. 6, p. 179 back
7. ch. 6, p. 178 back
8. ch. 5, p. 129 back
9. ch. 5, p. 130 back
10. see footnote 29a on p. 138 back
11. ch. 5, p. 133 back
12. For more on the Eastern/Jungian view, see the following issues of Phlit: September ’02, October ’02, February ’02. back
13. ch. 5, p. 137, 138 back
14. ch. 5, p. 138 back
15. see footnote 29a on p. 138. “In the Princeton copy of [a book by the Neoplatonic writer Landino] (where Alberti expounds the Platonic theory of reincarnation) an early sixteenth-century hand has added in margine: ‘Opinio Platonis de resurrectione.’” back
16. ch. 5, p. 146 back
17. ch. 6, p. 227 back
18. Somewhere in ch. 6. I’m quoting from memory. back
19. ch. 6, p. 208 back
20. ch. 6, p. 210 back
21. Psychological Types, ¶470 back
22. ibid back
23. Ch. 6, p. 209. See also ch. 5, p. 140, where Panofsky says, “the utterly non-medieval concept of genius... originated in Ficino’s philosophy.” back
24. Ch. 6, p. 180 back
25. ch. 6, p. 177, footnote 13 back
26. ch. 6, p. 229 back
27. Conversations With Great Thinkers, ch. 6, #17 back
28. ch. 6, p. 230 back
29. ch. 6, p. 229 back
30. ch. 6, p. 182 back
31. ch. 6, p. 182. These are Panofsky’s words, not Leonardo’s. back
32. ch. 6, p. 182. These are Leonardo’s words, not Panofsky’s. Here is Freud’s description of the death-instinct: “Besides the instinct to preserve living substance and to join it into ever larger units, there must exist another, contrary instinct seeking to dissolve those units and to bring them back to their primeval, inorganic state. That is to say, as well as Eros there was an instinct of death.”(Civilization and its Discontents, ch. 6) back
33. Republic, Book 6 back
34. ch. 6, p. 171 back
35. ¶465 back