Creative Work Essays

Death and the Maiden: Reflections on Art and Loss

by Tony McKenna
“I was able to see it again but through different eyes. The painting was transformed. Now the two people the artist depicts seemed more exposed to me, more human.”

Along with all the tedious posts about the shiny new cars or houses recently purchased or the saccharine mementos of nights in airbrushed restaurants or airbrushed hotels enjoyed by those with airbrushed lives – sometimes…just sometimes…you will encounter a Facebook meme which is beautiful and unforgettable, and really makes you think. 

A case in point.  I was scrolling through the endless, unfurling vistas of the Big Blue-and-White the other day only to come across a quite remarkable image. It was from an institution called the Dutch Ambulance Wish Foundation which tries to fulfil the last wishes of terminally ill patients. The photo shows an old lady in a hospital bed which has been wheeled out onto the floor of an art museum and positioned so that she can spend some time contemplating her favourite painting. The museum in question is the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam and the painting is The Jewish Bride by Rembrandt.

I have written before on Rembrandt, whom I believe was the most powerful and compelling artist of his age, so I was not unfamiliar with the painting. But I had only ever noticed it fleetingly, for, of all the works of the Dutch Master, I had found it to be one of the least compelling. It is a late work, dated from between 1665 and 1669. It depicts a well-dressed couple, the beautiful silk embroidery of their clothes depicted in the plush red and glittering gold of the great artist’s lattice brushwork, while the couple themselves are set against a background of fading ochre shadow. 

They are perhaps in their late middle-age. But we don’t know who they are. The man has one arm around the woman’s shoulder, and one hand is pressed gently on her torso. Beyond the fact that it is a Rembrandt (and therefore the technical elements of the painting are pretty darn good) it is a painting which does not really grab your attention, there is little about it which is dramatic or compelling. Your eyes settle on it for a few moments and then drift away. It feels odd saying this out loud about a Rembrandt painting, a little sacrilegious even, but the painting itself just feels…rather ordinary.

It is, of course, anything but. And that was what I realised when I saw the Facebook image. It put the painting in a very specific context. I saw the elderly lady on the bed in the museum in Amsterdam, her hands held together, wrapped securely in her blankets, gazing at the painting, while the ambulance workers stood on either side of her, and the image struck me as profoundly paradoxical. Here, after all, is someone with a terminal illness, someone whose life is particularly fragile and precarious, but at the same time this is an image of safety and security and palpable compassion; the people around her are there to protect her, to make sure she is safe. We cannot see them (the ambulance staff) properly; they are hardly present in the picture – after all this is her moment… and yet their unobtrusive kindness has gifted her with a warm and human experience when she is at her most vulnerable. 

It occurs to me that all human life should reach toward this gentle terminus, this soft landing; those final, precious moments to be unfolded in safety and comfort and solidarity. Of course, the vast majority of people who so desperately require this type of care do not get it. As of 2018 it was estimated that 40 million people a year need palliative care but only 14% of the total number end up receiving it. Perhaps that makes the situation of the dying woman gazing up at her Rembrandt even more poignant.

The photo of the woman allowed me to see the painting itself in a new light. For the tenderness toward the terminally ill woman in the photo is mirrored in the painting itself. I was able to see it again but through different eyes. The painting was transformed. Now the two people the artist depicts seemed more exposed to me, more human. The features of the couple more vulnerable in the soft light. You can see the broken capillaries of the skin which flush one side of the woman’s face, rosy red. You can see the wrinkles and creases which hang around her neck like nooses. Her eyes are ever so slightly bloodshot.

The male figure is more shadowed, but the ravages of time are at work here too. His skin seems to hang in places, the skeletal frame of his face pressing through. His hair is thinning. There is a wistful sadness in their expressions. And yet. They are together. They form a unit against that ochre dark which is all around them. Their fallibility is offset by the understated but immense tenderness that opens up between them. Which keeps them warm before the coming of the night, the night which must come to all. And, suddenly, that ordinary, non-descript gesture of affection by which the man in the painting places his hand against the woman’s midriff – becomes utterly, unbearably poignant. Rembrandt does this sometimes; he takes small and insignificant details and makes of them everything.

Rembrandt painted this work at a time when his own life had entered into its terminal freefall. When he begins work on The Jewish Bride he had already lost his beloved first wife Saskia and later his long-time partner Hendrickje Stoffels. He’d endured the deaths of two children. He had been declared bankrupt and his reputation as an artist had seen its heyday before passing into a long and wintry decline. He was on the very edge of destitution. He would live only a handful of years more, making The Jewish Bride one of his very final works. It is a piece which is touched by the frailty of the finite; fleshy faces withered by time yet with eyes which look out, melancholy and eternal. The inevitability of decline and loss is offset by gentle tenderness.

I see the grey-haired lady gazing at the painting from her bed; she too has been ravaged by time, she too is facing her inevitable denouement, and yet she is surrounded by tenderness and warmth, and this strange mirroring effect seems to merge disparate clutches of time; seventeenth century Amsterdam where an aging artist paints in the lonely confines of a dimly lit room, the intimacy and affection of the couple in the painting whose lives he has captured, and finally the modern contours of a museum in twenty-first century Holland where a woman sits propped up on her pillow looking at the same painting, her eyes sheened with tears. All these discrete realities and periods begin to play out simultaneously in the moment when you, the viewer, encounter the meme, pausing for just a few moments to really look. Perhaps that is the real miracle of art – an act of transubstantiation by which the essence of the past is converted into the blood and body of the present; a bridging of epochs which defies the physical finitude of a single life, fugitive and ephemeral, lonely in the face of forever.

Vincent van Gogh wrote how ‘Rembrandt goes so deep into the mysterious that he says things for which there are no words in any language. It is with justice that they call Rembrandt—magician—that’s no easy occupation.’ Having The Jewish Bride revealed to me in such a way, I feel as though I have been infected by just a speck of the magician’s magic – to be able to see something in such a radically different way, to be touched by the frisson of the new, to me, is something which is quite magical, perhaps because, the older I am, the less it seems to happen. When I was a teenager, and later in my early twenties, I was big fan of hip-hop and rap music. In particular I discovered the works of Tupac Shakur who to this day I consider every bit as much of a genius as Rembrandt himself. But now, on the odd occasion when I tune into a hip-hop station on the radio in the car the music means less and less to me.

I tell myself that is because the music in ‘my day’ (to use that classically old-manish phrase) was more authentically political – that the rap of today is far more centred on commercial concerns and is less responsive to social struggles. But the reality is I have no idea. I have not engaged with contemporary hip-hop because I cannot; it has in some real, indefinable way become a language I can no longer speak, no longer decipher – a once familiar land to which I can no longer return. I sometimes wonder why this is the case and it fills me with melancholy. And such melancholy brings me to philosophy, and to one philosopher in particular. 

The existential melancholy of Heidegger’s philosophy is in some degree provoked by a specific notion of ‘guilt’. It is not the everyday garden variety of guilt which attaches itself to this or that misdeed. Rather it presents as a more general malaise, as an inevitable consequence of existence itself. As human individuals, the gloomy German observed, we have the ability to choose freely from a range of possibilities, but in making that choice, in actualising one possibility over all others, we suffer a great loss – the loss of the what-might-have-been, the loss of a series of alternative futures which could have seen our potentials and powers developed in profound and radically different ways. In a sense, we suffer the loss of all the people we could one day become, and it is this existential awareness of squandered possibility which provokes in us the Heideggerian feeling of ‘guilt’.  

But as compelling and innovative as his concept of guilt is, I can’t help but feel it leaves out a crucial dimension. That is, the excitement and joy which arrives from discovering the person we actually do become. To make the choices which will develop our interests and powers, and which will eventually set the basis for a fully realised personhood. In adolescence such a process is very much in effect; on the cusp of adulthood, your personality is in some sense still malleable, and yet the decisions you take and the experiences you have are absolutely vital in determining the shape and cast of your adult self.  As well as being angst ridden, it can be an intense and exhilarating time in which the future horizon appears as wide and open, flush with unimaginable possibility. 

It is for this reason, I suspect, that the connection between music and adolescence proves to be such an intimate one. The frenetic and radical formation of the teenage years is fraught with burgeoning potentials and terrifying insecurities because you are so open to being changed, being formed. And this crosses over into aesthetic experience, particularly music, where the intensity and the possibility of the formation of a new identity is mediated by the new musical forms and sensibilities you encounter along the way. To put it simply, music provides the soundtrack to the person you are in the process of becoming, and is fused with the character of your social experiences therein.

I am not, of course, saying it’s impossible to discover new music as you get older – only that one becomes less receptive to it. Once you become a mature adult, once your personality is set into the person you are to remain, it loses a certain level of fluidity and malleability, and the experiences you have are more about reinforcing the routines and habits of the person you are – than developing the new forms of the person you are to become. That is why many older people tend to revert to the music of their youth when they listen, because it is more about emphasising who they have become rather than who they are to be.  To be or not to be.  It really is the question. It’s not simply that people of my age can never develop new musical interests, because of course we can; it’s just that it becomes, ontologically speaking, that more difficult. I am no longer able to ‘hear’ much of the hip-hop or rap music of today, because at this point in my life, I undergo far less of the formative experiences which provide the context whereby you hear that one song, for the first time, and suddenly everything just clicks. All of reality shimmers with a fine light as the music pours into your soul. You exist in a moment in time where everything is still possible. Were he to wish for anything, the philosopher Kierkegaard once wrote, he ‘would not wish for wealth and power, but for the passion of the possible, that eye which everywhere, ever young, ever burning, sees possibility. Pleasure disappoints, not possibility.’

But if it is the case that sometimes people, as they get older, leave music – it is equally the case that sometimes music leaves people. Consider classical music, for example. Ostensibly, classical music has enjoyed something of a renaissance. In recent times there has been a growing demand, partially stimulated by a large number of East Europeans and, more recently, Asians who have become great conductors or musicians in orchestras across the world. Particularly in China, Korea and Japan, there has been a developing trend among the middle classes to educate their children from an early age in the art of classical music. 

Partly this is to do with the elitism of the middle classes more broadly; to have your little darling rattle off a Beethoven sonata at seven years old, even if it means working his or her fingers to the bone, becomes an emblem of social status, conferring the aura of precociousness, of genius even, on the child. More generally, a background in classical music provides an excellent skill or achievement on the college application form of someone who is being primed to go to one of the more venerable and prestigious universities like Oxford or Cambridge. And, of course, there is the simple fact of the pristine beauty of a Beethoven sonata and the deep abiding joy which comes from being able to play one.   

It is perhaps no great surprise to learn that today ‘7 percent of U.S. orchestra musicians are Asian, and the figure rises to 20 percent for top orchestras such as the New York Philharmonic. At the elite Julliard School for music, one in five undergraduates—and one in three Ph.D. students—is Asian.’  Classical music has been granted a new lease of life in US the West more generally ‘thanks in large part to continued Asian immigration and an audience that is increasingly imported.’ But although this has been important in allowing the legacy of classical music to survive it is notable that, so far, we are yet to see the twenty-first century equivalent of a Mozart or a Chopin. Young, precocious children are being taught to play classical music to an incredible standard; they are being taught to interpret to the very highest degree the music of the masters but what is notably absent from their repertoire is the creation of the new. They are playing the great pieces bequeathed to history by others but they don’t seem to be creating their own. The intriguing question is to why this might be? 

In the Hegelian account of history, ever-changing forms of social being are infused by ‘geist’ or the ‘world spirit’ – the logic and the reason which underpins social and historical change – as it marches onward to unfurl new potentialities and new freedoms. The highest art is the art which encompasses the world spirit of any given age, which gives life and aesthetic expression to the social and political character of an epoch. The mysterious collapse of the Mycenaean civilisation at around the turn of the first millennium BC saw Hellenic peoples abandon the cities of old, rendering them empty and echoing for the centuries which followed – the great ghost towns of Mycenae and Tiryns, their vast stone fortifications gradually eroded by the seasons and the sun, home only to birds’ nests, mice and the insects now. The majority of people had long since retreated back into the kind of bucolic existence they might have enjoyed millennia before, and those same people lost the ability to write, they even lost the memory of the cities themselves, now conceiving the old ruins to have been the creation of mythical creatures known as cyclopes.

But at the same time, from this dark age was graduated the most luminous form of art, a poetic tradition infused with melancholy and grandeur, which described the lives and the deeds of the great kings and warriors who once stood at the head of the cities, and who were now no more. This was an oral poetry which wandering minstrels, travelling from village to village, would sing out by the light of the flickering fires crackling gently in the night, and the stories were handed down, generation after generation, held together by the memory of their exquisite rhymes at a time when people no longer had the ability to put words on a page. It was an art which dwelled on the remembrance of things past, a longing to render vivid again that which had faded and disappeared in the mists of time. Such art provided in some sense the spiritual aroma of the period, it was the form appropriate to a given historical content and would eventually culminate in the epic works put to page by Homer

But if a given art is capable of reflecting the world historical ‘geist’ of a given age, when that epoch passes into history, the form of its art often ceases to reflect the spirit of the new epoch. The experience of classical music probably reached its height at the time of the French Revolution, its greatest protagonists being Mozart and Beethoven, though a host of geniuses were spawned during the nineteenth century and the early part of the twentieth. It was a musical form which was bound up with revolution, the creation of the nation state, the bringing together of a ‘people’ whose collective identity was forged through the experience of war and revolution.

Beethoven’s thunderous Ninth Symphony, according to the writer and Beethoven scholar Harvey Sachs, is a beautiful, belligerent and triumphant affirmation of this identity, a ‘declaration in favor of universal brotherhood,’ at a time when the democratic hopes of the French Revolution has been frustrated first by Bonapartism and then by the Congress of Vienna which saw many of the old lineages of kingship and bloodline brutally imposed on Europe once again. The music of Beethoven condenses into the most haunting and ethereal sounds the joy and melancholy which comes from great historical shifts and the twists of fate as vast numbers of people rise up, fall back, rise up again. It is a music which is universal in its tenor and scope.

But our world has given impetus to a different musical form. The foundation of modern pop music was in some way built around the process of adolescence. Teenagers, particularly in the US, from the 1950s onwards, more and more cultivated a level of independence in and through part-time jobs, the ability to own a car which allowed for much more social and romantic freedoms, the possibilities opening up from the increasing number of expanding colleges and universities. With some level of independent income they also had access to mass produced vinyl records on an increasingly global scale; they became the basis for a new market, but more than this, they became the basis of a new set of social experiences to be mediated by the rock and roll artists who were attaining prominence at the time. In 1954 Bill Hailey released his version of one of the earliest rock and roll records, a version which was to become the anthem of a new generation. 

The song was Rock Around the Clock. But it was worth noting that the song itself really took off, not in 1954 but a year later when the movie Blackboard Jungle was released. The movie too was part of a new breed; it depicted the lives of rebellious teenagers from a diverse set of backgrounds attending an inner city school; it was, for the time stark – almost socially realist – given to gritty depictions of anti-social behaviour, but more than this, it provided a study in the tumultuous and volatile nature of adolescence itself as the teenage protagonists fought to discover new bonds and new identities. Both the movie and the song, Rock Around the Clock which was played as the end credits rolled, were harbingers of a social awakening, a brave new world in which teenagers, increasingly confident and independent, sought to manifest their experiences and culture against the dour and stultifying mores imposed on them by parents of an older generation that inclined toward social attitudes of conservatism and respectability.

Consequently, the music attained a rich level of subjectivity; it provided highly charged descriptions of both romantic longing and sexual encounters; the fraught, frenetic anticipation which comes from asking someone to dance, the heady sensuality of late night encounters in the back seat of cars parked before open-air cinemas – even the name ‘Rock and Roll’ was a euphemism for sexual intercourse which issued out of African-American slang at around the turn of the twentieth century. Rock and roll became fused with adolescent yearning and desire, and the need for the teenager to experience new freedoms. 

Classical music could never have captured this type of ‘geist’; firstly because the music of a Beethoven, as world-historic as it is, lacks the element of radical subjectivity which popular music enjoys. It cannot describe the inner feelings of the subjective individual – the joys and inadequacies which relate to romantic awakening, the psycho-sexual dimension if you will; and even in the places where the classical motif can utilise dialogue and voice as opposed to something which is purely instrumental, the overall effect is often very similar.

Beethoven, for instance, only ever wrote the one opera – Fidelio. And although it is about a wife’s love for her husband, the individual characters are merely cyphers for more universal historical moments; the husband has been imprisoned and sentenced to death for political reasons – his wife then undertakes his rescue. It is very much the theme of liberty in the French revolution writ large – a more universal theme embodied in and through individual characters and their struggle. It does not open up the deep, gapping abyss of the subjective psyche, the innermost thoughts and feelings – the elemental impulses and submerged desires – which a heady, throbbing rock and roll track makes palpable. 

But, perhaps more importantly, there is another reason why classical music couldn’t have reflected the ‘geist’ of adolescence. In Beethoven’s time adolescence simply didn’t exist in any real sense; it had not been cultivated as a historical phenomenon at the level of social being. It is self-evidently true that the biological category of pubescence was in effect; but there was no corresponding interregnum in which the psyche of the individual was suspended somewhere between childhood and adulthood vis-à-visa s volatile and formative period of social development. Simply put, one went to bed one day still a child, and woke up on the next an adult – i.e. you became an adult the day when you assumed the work roles and routines of adult life – and there was no hybrid period in between. As the Bible says, ‘When I was a child, I spake as a child, I understood as a child, I thought as a child; but when I became a man I put away childish things.’

And this has a powerful bearing on the issue. One can’t help but feel that while rock and roll music mediated the organic social experiences which arose from adolescence, those children and teenagers who become classical music savants have that education imposed on them from above, a formal requirement their parents expect them to cleave to in order to gain a series of social benefits – from the sense of prestige which comes from being a middle-class prodigy to the doors to higher education which such prestige opens up. But they are not encountering the music organically; that is to say, they do not discover it as a living cultural force in the world around them and they do not use it thereby to give life and expression to the twists and turns of their own immanent development. I am not saying that the experience of playing great classical music can’t be extremely and sometimes unbearably moving, because of course it can; but the forms of life which that music first sprang from have grown old and grey in the world, and cannot be rejuvenated.

In this sense, classical music, like Latin, is something of a dead language; it can only be revived in terms of an artificial imposition, something which does not issue from the living, breathing world soul, but something which is imposed from the outside as a merely formal requirement. Classical music, like Latin, can be reproduced, recreated, perfected, but only ever in the context of a mausoleum; both the language and the art have – in some fundamental sense – ceased to live, ceased to evolve. And that is why the music can be performed to the highest level of perfection, but it cannot be renewed; 19th century Beethoven can be reproduced but a twenty-first century Beethoven cannot be born.

There is, however, one key exception. There is an area in which classical music, or something which approximates it, continues to develop, continues to evolve in order to yield new creative dividends. I have in mind the music of the greatest film composers. Consider Danny Elfman’s deliciously dark and gothic theme to the 1989 Batman movie, or Hans Zimmer’s haunting and ethereal accompaniment to The Da Vinci Code, or Ennio Morricone’s elegant and elegiac ‘The Trio’ – the song which plays out the conclusion of the epic Sergio Leone western, The Good, the Bad and the Ugly. These are all incredibly powerful examples of what might loosely be termed classical music, but more importantly they represent a genuine rejuvenation of an old form, they represent the creation of something new. How is this possible?
ENNIO MORRICONE -“Il Triello (The Trio)” (1966)

In the case of Rembrandt’s, The Jewish Bride, I had come across the painting before but the encounter had proved meaningless. It was only when I saw the painting again in the context of a twenty-first century hospital and a terminally ill woman – that the artwork revealed itself to me. It was only in the context of that woman and her experience of the painting that my own experience was able to attain a genuine aesthetic definition and clarity. In the similar vein, if classical music is something which is no receptive to ‘geist’, no longer moored to the social forms of the world from which it arises, perhaps the film itself provides the experience by which such music can be rejuvenated. Perhaps the film itself provides the composer with the social substance and historical context which classical music can draw from once again and thus replenish itself.

In the case of Ennio Morricone’s ‘The Trio’, for example, the song draws life from the final scene where the three rival cowboys are edging around a great circle in the middle of a graveyard, a dance of death leading to that one point when they are going to open fire on one another. Not an unusual theme in any western for sure, but part of The Good, the Bad and the Ugly’s greatness as a film lies in the fact that the final confrontation also has a potent allegorical power. The film is set during the American Civil War. Though the cowboy heroes and villains are pursuing their own ends – the attempt to thwart one another in the search for gold – nevertheless the civil war is a looming presence in the background which more and more intrudes on their individual stories. The cowboys themselves have a certain bearing, a time-honoured mode of behaviour and etiquette – with the final duel exhibiting a way of life which is based on specific, codified principles of male honour and masculine tradition. 

But what meaning can a heroic individual carrying a six-shooter have in an epoch of automated mass murder underpinned by the rapid-fire technology of a Gatling machine gun? The gun fights which broke out in the Wild West (and were very much exaggerated in terms of their actual frequency by the movies) only ever robbed several people of their lives at a time. The American Civil War, on the other hand, stole some 600,000. That final scene – that dance of death – whereby the cowboys circle one another, is not, therefore, a simple nod to the demise of the cowboy who ‘loses’ the battle at the end; more poignantly, it is a nod to the loss of the cowboy way of life in its entirety; an antique and ‘honourable’ mode of being which must inevitably perish in the face of modernity and modernisation.  

And when one listens to The Trio, with the solemn lingering sound of its trumpets and strings which eventually builds into a sweeping and inevitable crescendo, you are at the same time listening to the sweep and grandeur of a whole epoch at the moment of its tragic collapse. The historical essence and contradiction carried by the film itself is picked up by the music of the composer; the film itself becomes a stand in, resurrecting a form of life, which is in some way at odds with the modern age, and that is why it also provides a new lease of life to the type of classical music which is equipped to express it; again, when one thinks about it, another form of transubstantiation – another one of art’s minor miracles.

About the Writer: I am a journalist, novelist, philosopher, cultural commentator, art historian and academic. My first novel ‘The Dying Light’ was published by New Haven in 2017. I have written on classical and contemporary art – my most recent book ‘Towards Forever: Radical Reflections on History and Art’ was published this year by Zero Books and features chapters on Goya, The Da Vinci Code, The Sopranos, The Wizard of OZ and much more.  I have also had essays published on Rembrandt, Van Gogh, Tupac Shakur, Harry Potter, Game of Thrones and much else related to art and culture.

My other books include ‘Art, Literature and Culture from a Marxist Perspective’ (Macmillan 2015), The Dictator, the Revolution, the Machine: A Political Account of Joseph Stalin’ (Sussex Academic Press) and ‘Angels and Demons: A Radical Anthology of Political Lives (Zero Books, 2019). In addition my writing has been featured by Dublin Review of Books, Al Jazeera, The Huffington Post, New Statesman, The Progressive, New Internationalist, ABC Australia, Overland Literary Journal, TRT World and New Humanist among others.

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