Neil Rathmell – writer

150+ essays on literary topics

A Reader’s Diary, 7 May 2014

I am continually fascinated by the way contributors to the London Review of Books write about art. There is a fundamental problem in trying to explain in words what an artist says in a picture. The problem is illustrated by what I have just written. An artist doesn’t ‘say’ anything, but what other word can we use to describe an act of communication, even if the act is non-verbal?

Two regular LRB writers, T.J.Clark and Julian Bell, have pieces in a recent issue (vol. 36, no. 7, 3 April 2014) that illustrate the problem, each finding his own very different solution. Clark writes at length. If a picture is worth a thousand words, his nine thousand on the four paintings that make up Veronese’s ‘Allegories of Love’ are more than generous. (He prefaces his article with a quotation from Ruskin’s diary, in which he writes of a painting by Veronese, ‘I felt assured that more of man, more of awful and inconceivable intellect, went into the making of that picture than a thousand poems,’ which would have been more generous still.)

Taking his cue from Ruskin, Clark’s subject is not what he calls the paintings’ ‘iconography’, for which there is a verbal equivalent, but their ‘visual character’, for which there is not. But how to write about it without using words? To take one example, ‘His treatment of fabrics makes sense, I think, the moment one grasps it as a language – a specific high diction – in which internal mobilities and resistances are staged in two dimensions.’ As T.S.Eliot wrote, ‘I gotta use words when I talk to you.’

The more I read, the more the feeling grew that Clark was holding my sleeve and would not let me go until he had finished, an art critic in the Ancient Mariner mould. His task will never be done and, when I escape, he will stop someone else and make them listen to him. ‘I still think the figure that crystallises Veronese’s worldview is the knight. I believe, as I have said, that the knight’s extraordinary off-balance posture is the form Veronese gives to his deepest thinking about…’ Excuse me, Mr Clark, I have a train to catch, letters to write, an appointment at the dentist’s, I have to go now.

Leaving T.J.Clark, whom we suspect of suffering from some kind of obsessive-compulsive art disorder, we find ourselves in the more easy-going company of Julian Bell. He is an art critic with the taste and style of a connoisseur, not of art, but of wine. Reading his thousand words on the Cézanne exhibition at the Ashmolean is like being shown round his cellars. With an expertise we cannot hope to match, he characterises each painting in a phrase as apt and aphoristic as if it were a Grand Cru de Bourgogne. One piece ‘gives up the ghost in a shudder of halations’, others are ‘high-pitched melodramas’. Among the Cézannes are some ‘fey Modiglianis’ and ‘bombastic Lipchitz bronzes’. He reaches for metaphor, as does the wine critic, as a way of suggesting by association something that can never adequately be put into words but only experienced at first hand through the senses.

To say that a picture is worth a thousand words is, after all, to say that a picture is beyond words, something to be looked at, not something to be read, metaphorically or otherwise. Julian Bell puts into words his response to what the artist paints, rather than attempting to translate or interpret the pictures. Nowhere in his piece does he tell us what he thinks Cézanne or anyone else is trying to say.

I came across an unexpected insight into the character of Shakespeare’s Iago when I read, for the first time, Herman Melville’s short story, Billy Budd, Sailor. The only thing that interests Melville is psychology, the way people’s minds work, what makes them do one thing rather than another. However dramatic the events might be he plays them down, warning us in advance of the climax, keeping nothing back and springing no surprises, avoiding all the usual narrative tricks to build up tension because that would be a distraction from what interests him and what he wants the reader to think about: what made it happen, why that rather than anything else, how the coincidence of character becomes a foregone conclusion resembling fate.

As in Othello, the action of Melville’s story hinges not on the eponymous hero, but on another character who becomes the hero’s nemesis. The tragic flaw is in the villain, not the hero, in Iago or Claggart, not Othello or Billy Budd. They are merely unlucky. Billy, the ‘handsome sailor’, is as heroic in many ways as Othello, as heroic as an ordinary sailor can be, given his disadvantages compared to the valiant Moor. Claggart, the master-at-arms, hates him in just the same way that Iago hates Othello. Melville tells us clearly why Claggart hates Billy. It was ‘his significant personal beauty,’ he says, ‘that had first moved him against Billy.’ He proceeds to explore the idea of envy. ‘Is Envy then such a monster?’ He calls it envy, rather than jealousy, but borrows Shakespeare’s metaphor to describe the process by which goodness in one man provokes evil in another. The goodness that everyone sees in the handsome sailor is what Claggart resents: ‘he saw the charm of it, the courageous free-and-easy temper of it, and fain would have shared it, but he despaired of it.’

Chapter 12, in which Melville briefly but effectively applies his anatomical skills to the nature of both Claggart as an individual case and the case of Envy in general, ends with a sentence that every actor playing the part of Iago, substituting Iago for Claggart, would do well to read. ‘With no power to annul the elemental evil in him, though readily enough he could hide it; apprehending the good, but powerless to be it; a nature like Claggart’s, surcharged with energy as such natures almost invariably are, what recourse is left to it but to recoil upon itself and, like the scorpion for which the Creator alone is responsible, act out to the end the part allotted it.’


My next post, due to be published on 14 May, is Modern fiction and the nature of Gothic.

My next Reader’s Diary will be published the following week on 21 May. 

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