Picasso, Gesualdo and the Project of Human Unity

In 1907, Pablo Picasso gave to the world what is widely considered to be the first Cubist painting, Les demoiselles d’Avignon. This picture, which generated widespread outrage in the art world, was groundbreaking for a number of reasons, not first because it dealt withImage prostitutes, but also because it mixed in influences of Iberian and African art, which both Picasso and George Braque, the other “founder” of Cubism, had studied. However, the most radical shift that Les demoiselles ushered in was the abandonment of perspective, the crowning achievement of the Renaissance in its victory over medieval art, and the dominant rendering paradigm in Western art for centuries. The vision that one sees on contemplating Les demoiselles is one that one could never have seen in the brothel on Carrer d’Avinyó in Barcelona, because the figures of the five prostitutes that it features are built out of interlocking plane figures that break out of the unity that a single-person perspective imposes on them, with the painting’s viewer thus seeing the women from “sides” that would not be available to someone viewing them in real life. The wholeness of their human figures thus appear to be broken down violently, pulled apart like cadavers under the autopsy knife. Moreover, the admixture of African styles in the representation of the women’s faces blasts the viewer with Imagea strong whiff of animality, with the woman at top right, for instance, having a face that reminds one of nothing so much as a baboon. The delicate balance and symmetry that for Classical and Renaissance painters so characterized the human figure is thrown out, replaced by uneven lines, broken geometrical figures and a flatness that seems to make a mockery of the three-dimensionality that seems so characteristic of the human being.

But there is another way to view the message of this proto-Cubist painting: complexity and disorder as the human condition. Since the beginning of written human testimony, there has been a quest for human integrity and unity that allows the human being to go beyond the Imagelimitations of his nature and achieve what the Mycenaean Greeks called arete or virtue, witnessed to by the ability of the heroic individual to maintain himself single-minded and free of the degradation of fear in one of the worst of situations destructive of the human being: hand-to-hand battle. Achilles, even without the supposed bath in the Styx at his birth, was able to maintain his physical integrity despite the worst that human weapons could do, facing down the entire army of Trojans and defeating their great hero, Hector, in a one-to-one battle that ended with the Trojan being dragged ignominiously around the walls of the besieged city. Later, philosophers paid tribute to the nobility of arete by transmuting it into the lifelong search for virtue, in particular the Socratic virtue of internal consistency that leads to justified and correct action in all aspects of one’s life.

One of the clearest distinctions between ancient and modern thought is the strong strain of irrationality that runs through the latter. While we often think of modern thought as fImageollowing the Enlightenment model of universal reason, other thinkers, especially beginning in the 19th century, have set themselves to the task of unmaking our pretensions to a rationally unified human nature. Certainly Nietzsche, with his “genealogy” of morals, was among the first, but Darwin certainly did his part, reducing the nobility of a God-given, unified human nature to a collage of parts brought together by the aeon-long process of natural selection (he was followed in this labor by other important thinkers, such as Freud, with his reduction of the self to the interworking of Imageobscure forces in the unconscious). This is part of what Picasso is doing when he “deconstructs” the human figure (although Cubism involves much more than this). In Les Demoiselles the women are stripped of the dignity of their integrity, and are reduced to basic geometry and faces that reveal a raw, primitive gaze and desire. Even more, by breaking down the unity that perspective gives to a painting, he breaks us down as well, since we, the onlookers, are precisely the ones who attempt to capture reality within the structure of a single perspective.

But this “undignified” position is precisely where we find ourselves. Many people over the centuries, not least the great thinkers of the Church, have meditated on the many ways in which our “body” struggles, violently at times, against the “spirit”—beginning with St. Paul and the “thorn in his side” that Christ never deigned to take away. The lists of capital and mortal sins are no mere invention, they reflect real ways in which our nature wars against our desire to act in an integral fashion according to our consciences. And the picture that appears when we reflect on this “war” is much like that of the prostitutes of Les demoiselles: dis-integrated, ir-rational, broken, bestial and strange to ourselves. Even more… this internal chaos affects us mortally: none of us are able to escape it, not even those who we hold to be the best among us.[1] One of the eternal pleasures of Imageyellow journalism and “revisionist” historians is to expose the feet of clay of those who we had hitherto idolized as morally superhuman. One need only think of how the young Gandhi beat his wife,[2] or how JFK loaded himself up on painkilling drugs and slept around with apparently numberless women,[3] or the similarly womanizing Martin Luther King.[4]

It is not surprising, then, that theologians would come up with a doctrine like that of the “total depravity” of human nature, a doctrine characteristic of Calvinist churches, but which also affected other churches, including the Catholic, via its Jansenist “heresy”. Nevertheless, philosophers and religious thinkers across the ages have refused to take the data about human disunity as the last word. The persistent Greek optimism about the possibilities of human nature has never been forgotten, nor the Hebrew insistence that people, despite their many defects, are nonetheless capable of following the Law.  Similarly,Image in the Chinese Confucian tradition, Meng Tzu (孟子) is said to have sustained the doctrine of the fundamental goodness of human nature, and our ability to satisfactorily fulfill the demands of ritual propriety (li 禮) and achieve the status of sages through dedicated study.

And indeed, even though our heroes have feet of clay, we need not cease to admire them, in all their imperfection, for even though they were unable to conquer every height and peak of virtue, through their own intensive efforts they nonetheless achieved much. No one need pretend that MLK was perfect in order to admire what he did manage to achieve, or to absolve JFK of his wayward ways in order to recognize that the vision he presented for America, and which he attempted to make concrete and real through his policies, was genuinely inspiring to multitudes, paving the way for much social progress in the decades to come. And Gandhi, over the course of his life, dramatically changed his treatment of his wife, coming to love her in an unselfish and gentle way. And so it is that the Socratic ideal of perfect integration of the soul and the achievement of total virtue serves perhaps as a sort of asymptotic goal that we will never, ever reach in this life, but which nevertheless is highly worthy of being pursued and its conquest attempted. For even as imperfect, disunited beings we can nonetheless achieve great things, calming to some degree the war within us, attaining to some degree of virtue and doing good despite strong currents to the contrary.

Picasso appears to never have attempted to provide a “solution” to the dis-integration of the human person, with late paintings like “Femme nue au collier” giving a vision of complexity, broken lines, unbalance and deathlike color. However, there is, in this painting, a suggestion of depth that goes beyond brokenness, as indicated by the woman’s strikingly friendly eyes.  In this light, it is worth reflecting on the achievement of another artist who, like Picasso, represented vividly and painfully the dis-integration of the human person. Carlo Gesualdo, a ImageRenaissance prince from the region of Naples, was a violent, tortured man who nonetheless composed numerous “madrigals”, a cappella pieces with strong and complex use of counterpoint, or distinct “melodies” that intertwine around each other producing striking, and sometimes shocking, chords. These songs, which each focus on a particular highly emotionally charged experience, ranging (according to his most prominent interpreters) from sadness to joy to sexual release, and their complex, atraditional “harmonies” have been influential among avant-garde composers in the 20th century, including Stravinsky and Sciarinno. Their vision of human complexity and disintegration has been noted by modern critics, and Aldous Huxley wrote that Gesualdo, as he reveals himself through his compositions, is “all in bits”.[5] But as these critics have also noted, there is a higher unity that prevails despite the centripetal force of the clashing lines of song, and a tremendous beauty makes itself powerfully present. And this, perhaps, is the lesson we can take from Gesualdo and others like him, who have presented the strident complexity, even internal warfare, of human experience, while transcending it, transcending even their own defective and incomplete selves, to create monuments to beauty that have lasted the centuries.

And this is, perhaps, our own calling as well… to struggle towards unity, beauty and goodness in our own lives, despite the heavy weight of our own fragmented, disordered natures, and despite the knowledge that the perfect happiness of total integration is decisively out of our reach, finding instead the finite but satisfying pleasure of the journey.

[1] I leave to the side the question of whether certain outstanding individuals have achieved “complete integration”, such as the Buddha or Jesus, since we have only the testimony of their disciples. In any case such individuals form an extraordinarily tiny percentage of the human population. For most of us, “partial” integration is the most that can be hoped for.
[2] Gandhi, M. (1929) An Autobiography, or the Story of My Experiments with Truth, chap. 87.
[3] Hersh, S. (1997) The Dark Side of Camelot.
[4] Snopes.com article on Martin Luther King. URL: http://www.snopes.com/history/american/mlking.asp. See in particular item 4), at the end of the article.
[5] Huxley, A. (1963) The Doors of Perception.


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