Ktismatics

10 November 2013

Iconology

Filed under: Fiction, Reflections — ktismatics @ 1:26 pm

I posted the very beginning of the first novel three years ago, shortly after I wrote it. I was planning to read the first chapter to a writer’s group to which I’d been invited by my neighbor. I had attended once before, and the story I’d read had been well-received by the group. At the next session I hoped to discuss with the group the abrupt shift from second person present to third person preterite. That discussion didn’t happen, and I didn’t get back to thinking about the narrative tenses until writing my making-of post the other day. I also had hoped to discuss with the group a couple of iconic images included in the second paragraph of the book: one based on a famous Manet painting of the bar at the Folies Bergère; the other, the image of a woman stenciled on a sidewalk near where I lived. That conversation too proved abortive, as those of you who have been following along with my blogged adventures might remember. Two days later I wrote a brief summary post about the group: “No thanks, but I don’t believe I’ll be back next month.” In a comment Asher asked for further elaboration. I replied:

I’d say this particular group is about cocktail hour chitchat and extended discussions of obscure 19th-century writers’ personal correspondences and striking the studied poses of literati dickwads and cunts. Or maybe it was just me.

Embedded in the longer rant I recounted in greater detail the discussion of the Manet, which serves as a model for the bar and the barkeep in my story:

I read the first chapter of the current novel that begins with the Manet bar and the two-guys metajoke, as posted here. I hand around a reproduction of the Manet as a visual aid. The whole chapter takes about ten minutes to read. When I’m finished one guy asks me the date of the Manet painting. I tell him it’s early 1880s (I think that’s right). You know it’s remarkable, the guy responds, but that wasn’t long after the Paris Commune. The guy with the Middlemarch marginal notes then remarks pithily about the ongoing Prussian occupation of Paris and Flaubert’s political views as reflected in his notebooks. This led to a lively conversation between these two dickwads. What about my chapter, I ask. Perhaps a bit confusing, one offered. I’m sure it is confusing if you’re too drunk and self-absorbed to pay attention.

See what I did there, shifting mid-paragraph from present to preterite, then back and forth again? Is it a sloppy mistake or a stylistic maneuver? We’ll let the biographers of the future decide. But back to the iconic images. Here’s something from the second novel in the cluster (or maybe it’ll turn out to be the third):

Prestige is a conjuror’s trick, said Prop Immo. Doubly fantastic, prestige is a force generated simultaneously by the magician’s skill and the observer’s fantasies. Held spellbound, the captive of prestige experiences the enchanted object as somehow both more substantive and more mystical than other worldly things.

And what of the one who owns and controls such objects? ‘Among countless stones, one stone becomes sacred – and hence instantly becomes saturated with being.’ Mircea Eliade tells us this. If I possess the sacred stone, I too become saturated with being.

What I wanted to discuss with the literati dickwad society was this sense of the ordinary object attaining iconic status. Would Flaubert’s painting have attracted my attention walking through the Courtauld in London if it hadn’t already accumulated layers and layers of plenitude, meriting its prominent and singular display in the gallery? Would I have been held captive by its prestige, to the extent of buying a print in the gift shop, carrying it home in an architect’s tube, having it framed and hung on the wall? Would its plenitude have persisted years after I’d given the print away to our daughter’s violin teacher, such that when I started thinking about the look and feel of a fictional bar it was Manet’s rendering that came to mind? For me the print of the iconic painting had again become an ordinary object, a quotidian presence to which I had grown inured through repeated exposure. Only later, after it was long gone, did my mental image of that withdrawn object re-enchant itself. Eliade goes on:

The object appears as the receptacle of an exterior force that differentiates it from its milieu and gives it meaning and value.

The stenciled woman too: anonymous but numinous, she too is imbued with magic. I put up a post about her, others reported sightings, no one knew who she was or who had made the stencils. I saw her image nearly every day: as the stencil gradually eroded her plenitude increased. In the text I set the barkeep inside one icon, while from her necklace the other icon appeared as a pendant. It’s not surprising then that the barkeep herself is gradually transformed into an iconic figure. And it is she who picks up the stone on her way to the shrine, an Eliadic stone that she commemorates in her poetic soliloquy appearing near the end of the sixth book.

An icon operates as a portal, leading through itself into another dimension, another reality, another web of meanings in which the world is embedded. But how does it get that way? Is it placed by the gods in our midst, disguised as an ordinary thing, waiting for us to discover its secrets and its depths? Does someone consciously select it, assigning its function that the rest of us are expected to honor? Does it call attention to itself, spanning the gap between it and you at some level beneath your conscious awareness? Deep calls to deep in the roar of your waterfalls, the Psalmist writes.

There are sacred artists who intentionally create objects intended to span the gap between the material and spiritual realms. On some level all artists are iconographers, their attention drawn by elements of the quotidian that point beyond themselves, linking them together in an alternative weave, together tracing the contours of an alternate reality. Maybe at least some of those who attend to what the artist is pointing at can glimpse it too, can hear its call, can step through the portal.

Bad juju too works this way. My desultory experience at the writer’s group is repeated in my memory, and repeated again in my subsequent description. Much later that description is expanded and incorporated into an early chapter of the sixth novel. It had been a brief and trivial occurrence; now, having fallen under the resentful iconographer’s spell, it is revealed as a portal. Through the narrow and jagged aperture can be glimpsed a sliver of the eighth circle of hell, wherein the literary dickwads and cunts remain fixed for eternity in their statuesque poses of studied pomposity, gracefully holding their always-half-empty glasses of pinot as eternally they return to their marginal notes on Middlemarch.

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