More Gaudy Possibilities: Gothic Ornaments vs Sincerity

by on Feb.13, 2012

Here’s a quick little idea. Last week, I wrote about Joy Katz’s Pleiades article, arguing in favor of the “realness” and “sentimentality” of a “personal narrative” aesthetic, and against the artificiality of “surrealism.” Her (very pervasive) model of art: The author communicates his/her “emotions” to the reader. The art itself is strangely made into an obstacle of this communication, as if the artifice isn’t in fact highly affective, as if the medium itself wasn’t what drives art.

This morning I remembered how a while back I wrote a bunch about “gothic ornaments” and “wallpapers” and how the charges of the distance/inauthenticity of “surrealism” in many ways connects to another common charge: “excessive ornamentation.” Its the same idea that the medium is something that serves a function, that the medium isn’t affective itself.

Back in one of those posts, I posted the following quote from Wilhelm Worringer’s famous book on Gothic Art from 1908:

Our organically tempered sense of vitality recoils before this senseless rage of express as from a debauch. When, however, finally yielding to compulsion, its energies flood these lifeless lines, it feels itself carried away in a strange and wonderful manner and raised to an ecstasy of movement, far outstripping any possibilities of organic movement. The pathos of movement which lies in this vitalized geometry – a prelude to the vitalized mathematics of Gothic architecture – forces our sensibility to an effort unnatural to it. When once the natural barriers of organic movement have been overthrown, there is no more holding back: again and again the line is broken, again and again checked in the natural direction of its movement, again and again it is forcibly prevented from peacefully ending its course, again and again diverted into fresh complications of expression, so that, tempered by all these restraints, it exerts its energy of expression to the uttermost unti lat last, bereft of all possibilities of natural pacification, it ends in confused, spasmodic movements, breaks off unappeased into the void or flows senselessly back upon itself.

I also quoted a similar passage from Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s classic “The Yellow Wallpaper”:

On a pattern like this, by daylight, there is a lack of sequence, a defiance of law, that is a constant irritant to a normal mind.The color is hideous enough, and unreliable enough, and infuriating enough, but the pattern is torturing.You think you have mastered it, but just as you get well underway in following, it turns a back somersault and there you are. It slaps you in the face, knocks you down, and tramples upon you. It is like a bad dream.The outside pattern is a florid arabesque, reminding one of a fungus. If you can imagine a toadstool in joints, an interminable string of toadstools, budding and sprouting in endless convolutions–why, that is something like it.

What I love about both these quotes are the way sensible people might not want to get into this “excessive ornamentation” but once you do, it’s this breakneck experience. It’s about as good a description of how I experience a lot of my favorite poems, for example any moment from Aase Berg’s Dark Matter (again, I’ve spent a lot of time translating this, thus the reason I keep using it as an example!):

In the aquarium cistern in the deep ship’s inner, dark-green moray eels stroke in a slow orbit around the soft legs. Out of the gland-darkness, the aromas of heavy vanilla and ambergis rise; purple acorn bolts and pulsars throb rhythmically against the machine’s watermill.

A charge grows out of the steam from moment to moment. We hear voices from misty shores at the edge of the hallucination’s field of vision. Orchids of flower meal, pionees of meat, Alexander’s ampules from the Lust Garden of Suffering. In the pearl-green water one can see rags from siphonophores torn into pieces by the deep-sea hurricane.

I catch the fever and have to lie facing inward in heat for many days. Here follows an episode with consequences long past that of the pure eye. A young Chinese girl who stares at us from her obscured position the whole time. And Saskia Morena moves straight into Alexander’s traps. In her view he opens the ampules and the androgyne’s images begin to seep out.

He also anaesthetizes certain muscles with small dozes of the pink powder. He dissects lovely plants and he creates a herborium of stamen-sprout and sticky hairy stems. This makes it possible to turn the poison outwards. To loosen the catastrophe from its position in the in-between space of our inner meeting. To spread it like pollen over android heaps and mute legions. At the surface of the facial skin whose carrier is Saskia Morena…

(from “Ampules from the Lust Garden of Suffering,” my translation)

Worringer’s book makes a too-easy distinction between Renaissance-based art of harmony and well-wrought-ness and Gothic excess, but what his quote might add a new layer to Katz’s discussion of “sentimentality” and “surrealism.”

Another interesting thing I just thought about. Katz wrote:

Sentiment is feeling, and we feel with our real bodies in real time. Sentiment is sincere… Surrealism distances the world… it’s easier, right now, to write poems with dance floors full of water torturers wearing lingerie than it is to find a non-icky way to feeling.

There is so much more energy and creativity in her parodic example of “surrealism” (water torturers…) than in most of the essay, it’s almost like she “catches” the surrealism like a virus and it takes her on this brief ride onto the dance floor.

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