Notes from New Sodom

... rantings, ravings and ramblings of strange fiction writer, THE.... Sodomite Hal Duncan!!

Friday, September 23, 2005

A Wee Happy Glow

This is (again) terribly self-indulgent of me, but I can't resist linking to Jetse's review of The Chiaroscurist, over at Shortform. Hell, what are blogs for, if not self-indulgent / self-absorbed self-referentiality. Anyway, Niall Harrison's review is also pretty astute, but Jetse describes the real key idea of the story, the meaning of chiaroscuro, as:

"the modern-day dark against Michelangelo’s light... a means to bring humanity’s dark side to light..."

Reading this, I couldn't help but think "bang-on", and have a wee happy glow from the knowledge that someone "got it". And it made me realise, because Jetse draws out the references to Michelangelo, that the other figure lurking in the shadows of the story is one of the great masters I admire so much but haven't yet got round to ranting about. So...

The greatest chiaroscurist of real-world painting (IMHO) -- and perhaps the real Chiaroscurist of the story -- was also one of the great gay icons (IMHO) of all time... another Michelangelo, not Buonarotti but Caravaggio. A wild child and a knife-fighter (like Kit Marlowe), Caravaggio, so the story goes, had the words Nec Spe, Nec Metu, inscribed into his blade. No Hope, No Fear. He painted religious tableaux, like all those Renaissance painters who'd gone before him; but to my mind Caravaggio's take on these conventionalities is essentially Modern. His vision is reminiscent of both Romanticists like Delacroix and Neo-Classicists like Jacques-Louis David but he stands before them and between them. Those two warring aesthetics of the Enlightenment are united in him as, I believe, they were reunited in Modernism. He used whores and tramps as models for virgins and apostles, sinners reimagined as saints. Where Romanticism and Neo-Classicism idealise, where they render the world in bold flourishes, expressing Grand Ideas of the sublime, the rational, honour and nobility, Caravaggio brings the domestic erupting up out of the taverns and the brothels, into the canvass of our cultural environment. Like Joyce casting prostitutes as sirens, like Stevens trying to reach through the image of a bronze head of a god "almost to man", Caravaggio is cracking the artifice of grandeur, revealing the humanity at the heart of it. He speaks to this Modern Age of nihilism and existentialism, of contingency in place of absolutes. A murderer on the run for much of his life, a man who understood the darkness and the way light offers glimpses of... relief in that darkness, Caravaggio's motto is one I wholeheartedly endorse.

No Hope, No Fear.

This is, I would argue, the most concise articulation of the positive and paradoxically life-affirming nature of nihilism you will ever hear.

If God is, as Neitszche says, dead... if there is no Absolute underpinning our world with essentialist meaning, then... nothing matters. No-one here gets out alive. There is no heaven and no hell. Hope is an illusion, a delusion, and all that "pie in the sky when you die" is just one big shell-game of the soul. Sartre talks of a great existential void because of this. He talks of angst and nausea. What do I say to that?

Fuck that shit.

No Hope, No Fear, mes amigos. If nothing matters then it doesn't fucking well matter that it doesn't matter. So fucking what? Fuck cynicism. Or rather, if you call yourself a cynic then have the balls to take that cynicism to its ultimate conclusion, to be cynical about cynicism. Cynicism? What's the point in that then? Feh. There is no point. It's all a crock of shit, after all, all that old essentialist shell game. If you're going to be a true cynic, I say, then you gotta stop being a pansy-ass about it. Ditch the black beret and Galouise attitude. If your mantra is that faux-cynical "Why bother?" then, fuck it, I see that and I raise you one "Why the fuck not?". That's nihilism for ya. If you're looking down into that existential abyss, that void of meaning, and you feel angst, you feel nausea, well then, mes amigos, you're imposing an artificial and essentialist interpretation on that absence. What do you feel when you look into the face of that abyss? A fear born of one's desire to cling to the old certainties? A sadness born of nostalgia for the delusion of truth? A grief for dead ideals?

Fuck that shit.

No Hope, No Fear.

Caravaggio may have lived, strictly speaking, long before the Modern Age. He may still have believed in much of that old hokum of God and Man -- God as the Neo-Classical creator of perfection, a God of Reason, God of Light; Man as the Romantic individual, a wanderer in the wilderness, a noble savage of dark passions. But I believe Caravaggio was the harbinger of a new way of thinking, a humanist aesthetic which portrays the world and humanity and divinity within that world and that humanity, divinity as a creation of that material realm, not a transcendant force in eternal opposition to it, perhaps even no more than a metaphor. In the world created by the chiaroscurists who followed in his footsteps -- Rimbaud? Nietszche? Joyce? -- the source of light is not the utterance of a hidden, nameless, faceless God. It's the candles lit upon the altars for those we've loved and lost, the ephemeral flames of human souls which burn for a while, burn down or are snuffed out, and have to be replaced. Sure, the world is a dark, cold place, but that's why we fucking light our fires in it.

That's the light that suffuses Caravaggio's work, the light of the candle or the hearth. It's the light of the fucking furnace of fucking humanity, the fires that Joyce referred to at the end of The Portrait Of The Artist As A Young Man, when Stephen Daedalus sets out...

"to forge in the smithy of his soul, the uncreated conscience of his race."

It's a fucking awesomely audacious, insanely ambitious aim, to stare into the abyss, have it stare back into you as per Nietszche, and giggle in its face, and draw a moustache on it. But fuck it, I say. No Hope, No Fear, mes amigos.

God is dead. Amen and hallelujah.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

What can I say, Hal, but...FUCK!!!!!!!!!!
PS - this blog of yours if fucking great! Makes me feel a warm glow that another writer is telling it as they see it, without of the bull and blather! Nice one - keep the fuck up!

8:26 pm  
Blogger paul f cockburn said...

Hey, can I design the t-shirts? :-)

8:40 am  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Good to see that I haven't lost the art of reading (insert grin).

I must admit that I wasn't aware of Caravaggio, not having heared of him before you mentioned him. (Another piece of cultural background I lack, alas. I've only just been catching up on our own Dutch masters, recently.)

So, the internet and google to the rescue, and I must say that I am very impressed with his paintings.

Also, from an online biography:

>>>>Caravaggio's mature manner commenced about 1600 with the commission to decorate the Contarelli Chapel in San Luigi dei Francesi in Rome with three scenes of the life of Saint Matthew. The Calling of Saint Matthew (1599?-1600) is noted for its dramatic use of cellar light, streaming in from a source above the action, to illuminate the hand gesture of Christ (based on Michelangelo's Adam on the Sistine ceiling) and the other figures, most of whom are in contemporary dress. <<<<

Which indeed explains the link to Michelangelo (according to the same biography Caravaggio's original name was Michelangelo Merisi. Michelangelo was probably a relatively common name, but still...).

In any case, I thought that Maester -- "The Chiaroscurist" -- was a purely fictional character. Which he of course is, but I had no idea that he was based on an actual historical artist.

Nevertheless, a superb story. In all honesty, though, I was cnsiderably less impressed with "The Last Shift" in Nova Scotia (it was OK, but not superb), but you can't win them all.

Two years ago, I would have written a glowing review of it -- and most of Electric Velocipede #9 -- in The Fix. Nowadays, being part of the Interzone editorial team takes up most of my spare time.

Speaking of which, you are aware that we publish short fiction in Interzone? Feel free to email me at: jetse (at) home (dot) nl.

7:49 pm  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Gotta love this anonymous posting (and the spambot countermeasures).

The above was me: Jetse de Vries.

7:51 pm  
Blogger Joe said...

Hi, Hal,

This new graphic novel from DC due out the end of this month may interest you, its a re-issue of Pat Mc Greal's "Chiaroscuro: the Private Lives of Leonardo Da Vinci" (obviously available from yer local SF book and GN duder)

5:00 pm  

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