Dante’s Divine Comedy is one of the undisputed masterpieces of world literature and the crowning achievement of the medieval world-view. Representing the allegorical journey of the soul through the three realms of the afterlife, Inferno, Purgatory and Paradise, the Comedy offers a series of vividly dramatic scenes that has ignited the imagination of artists throughout the centuries, especially the unforgettable voyage through the seven circles of Hell, where Dante with his guide Virgil hear the stories of sinners as they undergo the eternal torments of the damned.
Sandro Botticelli produced a number of exquisite silverpoint illustrations, probably commissioned by Lorenzo De Medici during the latter years of the 15th Century, however the project was never completed. William Blake taught himself Italian to be able to read the Comedy in the original and spent his final days feverishly working on a series of sublime watercolours. Gustave Dore’s sombre and majestic otherworldly etchings are probably the greatest completed visual rendition of Dante’s narrative. In the twentieth century Tom Phillips produced a unique take in his limited edition of Inferno.
Below are examples of the four artists work based around episodes set in the Inferno. I have also included Stockhausen’s Luzifers Abschied, which has to rank as the strangest, most left field, left handed experimental piece of music (or any other media, for that matter) included in Cakeland; just in case anyone wants to really immerse themselves in the infernal atmosphere of the artworks.
Robert Desnos was in many ways the archetypal surrealist spirit. Involved in Paris Dada he was in the literary vanguard of Surrealism and possessed an extra-ordinary talent for automatic writing during the Trance Period, rivalled only by Rene Crevel. Desnos, like many others, fell out with Andre Breton and joined the group centred around Georges Bataille and his magazine Documents and he was one of the signers of the anti-Breton polemic Un Cadavre.
During WWII Desnos was an active member of the French Resistance and he was captured by the Gestapo in 1944. He was deported to Auschwitz, then Buchenwald and finally Theresienstadt where he would die a few weeks after the camp’s liberation from typhoid.
I Have So Often Dreamed Of You
I have so often dreamed of you that you become unreal.
Is it still time enough to reach that living body and to kiss
on that mouth the birth of the voice so dear to me?
I have so often dreamed of you that my arms used as they are
to meet on my breast in embracing your shadow would
perhaps not fit the contour of your body.
And, before the real appearance of what has haunted and ruled
me for days and years, I might become only a shadow.
Oh the weighing of sentiment,
I have so often dreamed of you that there is probably no time
now to waken. I sleep standing, my body exposed to all the
appearances of life and love and you, who alone still
matter to me, I could less easily touch your forehead and
your lips than the first lips and the first forehead I
might meet by chance.
I have so often dreamed of you, walked, spoken, slept with your
phantom that perhaps I can be nothing any longer than a
phantom among phantoms and a hundred times more shadow
than the shadow which walks and will walk joyously over
the sundial of your life.
The entire text of the spell dedicated to Roger Blin (recto and verso) reads; ‘All those who have gotten together to keep me from taking HEROIN all those who have touched Anne Manson because of that Sunday May 1939 I will have them pierced alive in a Paris square and I will have them perforated and their intestines burned. I am in a Mental Asylum but this dream of a Madness will be enacted and enacted by ME-Antonin Artaud.’
In 1937 the French writer, actor and dramatist Antonin Artaud landed in Cobh, Ireland with a letter of introduction from the French Embassy. Without that letter the Irish officials would have denied Artaud admittance. From Cobh he travelled to Galway where he holed up in a hotel room he couldn’t pay for. The purpose of this strange odyssey was to return a walking stick he had acquired which he believed was the staff of St Patrick, as well as being previously owed by both Jesus Christ and Lucifer. After a brief stint in Dublin’s Mountjoy Prison Artaud was deported as a ‘destitute and undesirable alien’. On the return ship voyage he attacked two crew members and had to be restrained and put in a straitjacket.
The previous decade Artaud had been one of the leading lights of the first phrase of Surrealism, writing addresses to the Pope, Chancellors of the European Universities, the Dalai Lama and the Buddhist Schools. In January 1925 Andre Breton announced that Artaud was assuming direction of the Bureau of Surrealist Enquiries, cryptically commenting that ‘The Central Bureau, more alive than ever, is henceforth behind closed doors, but the world must know that it exists.’ However after the bitter criticisms Breton levelled against Artaud (along with many, many others) in the Second ManifestoArtaud left the movement, aligning himself somewhat with the renegade Surrealists who published in Georges Bataille’s Documents.
The return from Ireland brought about for Artaud a period of confinement in different asylums which ended only with his death in 1948 from an overdose of choral hydrate. 1938 saw the publication of his most famous work The Theatre and Its Double where he outlined his vision for the Theatre of Cruelty but he wrote little again until 1946, instead concentrating on writing up spells, casting horoscopes and drawing disturbing pictures.
But then Artaud would have doubtless have approved of Mick Jagger’s character Turner’s paraphrase of the central tenets of the Theatre of Cruelty in the 1970 movie Performance, ‘The only performance that makes it, that makes it all the way, is the one that achieves madness. Am I right?’ Judging by those lights Artaud made it all the way.
(This is a post that has previously appeared here, however now with four illustrations by Susanne Rempt).
All mirrors are inherently mysterious and magical. The moment when Narcissus looked into the lake and realised that what he saw reflected was at one and the same time the self and an image was the moment of a great divide, a second Fall, but as certain Gnostic sects argued about the temptation of Eve and the expulsion from the Garden of Eden this recognition was a necessary loss of Innocence. It was the first experience of a mediated reality. All that was needed was the technical expertise to manufacture mirrors to disseminate this heightened self-awareness to every individual. And from mirrors it was only a matter of time before the camera and then film which led to the media landscape that envelops and dominates our perception today.
Mirrors are mentioned frequently in myth, folk-lore and religion; not to mention in art and literature. In Corinthians Paul says of our knowledge of the divine ‘For now we see through a glass, darkly; but then face to face: now I know in part; but then shall I know even as also I am known’. In Vodou, the syncretic religion practised widely in Haiti that combines elements of West African spirit religion, Catholicism and arguably Mesoamerican traditions, the altars of hounfours (temples)
are decorated with mirrors as they are conduits that the houngan use to contact the spirit world. Many cultures at many times held the tradition of covering all mirrors in the house when in mourning, this custom persists today in Judaism. In connection with a heresy held by one of the numerous Gnostic sects Borges states ‘Mirrors and copulation are abominable, since they both multiply the numbers of men.’
In libertine fiction mirrors play a large part as they increase the pleasure of the moment and enables the libertine to view the erotic scene which they are actively participating in. In the sparkling sophisticated jewel of a tale Point de lendemain (No Tomorrow) byVivant Denonthe artful heroine describes to her paramour the delights of her chamber with its reflective glass covering every wall, when he enters he is enchanted to find a ‘a vast cage of mirrors’ and then states that, ‘Desires are reproduced through their image’.
One of the most memorable mentions in fairy-tales of the deceptive nature of the looking-glass is the Magic Mirror of the Evil Queen in Snow White, which is a good illustration of William Blake’s quote ‘A truth told with evil intent beats any lie you could invent.’
However, for me the supreme moment for the mirror in literature is when Alice steps through to the other side of the looking glass. Ever since the phrase has been used to describe many different and varying experiences; the transfigured absolute reality glimpsed in insanity; the shifting contours of the nightly dreamscape, the heavens and hells of drug use (the John Tenniel illustration was reproduced on LSD blotters in the sixties) the transcendence achieved in sexual ecstasy, and ultimately death, that unknowing inevitable frontier where we hope that the outward appearance will vanish to be replaced for all eternity by our fundamental essence. For although mirrors are just surface and can deceive, distort and warp, they also always reveal something other than just ourselves.
Born into a wealthy colonial family with roots in the French aristocracy and which included several Rosicrucians and Swedenborgians, the writer, painter and visionary Malcolm De Chazal (1902-1981) spent his whole life on the island of Mauritius, with the exception of six years in Baton Rouge, where he completed his secondary education before attending Louisiana State University as an engineering student. Upon his return to the island he worked as an agronomist in the sugar plantations before quitting the field after he published a scathing critique on the methods and economy of the industry. He then worked as a civil servant before retiring at the age of 55. From 1940 however he increasingly dedicated himself to writing and later painting.
His most famous work is Sens-Plastique, a collection of thousands of aphorisms. The work was suggested after a visionary encounter with an azalea. While out for a walk, de Chazal observed the flower and then realised that the azalea was looking at him. He was then struck with the revelation that: “I became a flower while being myself all the time“, and that everything in the universe, be it animal, vegetable, mineral or human, was analogous. The aphorisms is Sens-Plastique are a riot of poetic analogy and concrete, visual metaphor. It was hailed by the Surrealists; Andre Breton, Jean Paulhan, Georges Bataille and the originator of the term Art Brut, Jean Dubuffet all lauded de Chazal as a genius. Outside of French artistic circles the poet W.H Auden also championed Sens-Plastique.
In the 1950’s De Chazal took up painting at the suggestion of Georges Braque. His paintings are charmingly emblematic images of the landscape, flora and fauna of his beloved island home, the bold colours blazing with a visionary intensity.
An early supporter of Mauritian independence and the dismantling of a racial caste system that allowed vast inequalities to exist, de Chazal also wrote a ‘spiritual history’ of the rocks and mountains of the island. He became increasingly reclusive in his later years
Below are a selection of aphorisms from Sens-Plastique and a slideshow of his fauvist flavoured paintings.
A fish in fear of its life turns into water. In the mutual pursuit of sexual pleasure—the fear of joy and the joy of fear—our bodies liquefy each other in the waters of the soul, becoming so spiritual that hardly any corporal self is left. When we wake up after love, we look around desperately for our lost body.
If our five senses didn’t serve as brakes to slow us down and filter our sensations, sexual pleasure would strike us like lightning and electrocute our souls.
We see a friend’s eye as one and indivisible. A stranger’s eye we take in part by part: the white, the iris, and the pupil.
Silence is a lawyer who pleads with his eyes.
A flowing river is an infinity of superimposed production belts.
The sunflower keeps its eye on the sun with its back turned to the shade. We die facing life with our backs to death, as if we were walking out of a room backwards.
Petals are a plant’s eardrum. Distant sounds make them quiver like the needle of a seismograph.
The kiss ends at the point of a needle. Sex ends fanning out. The kiss is an arrow. Sex is a fountain.
All the colours ‘rot’ in maroon, the rust of all rusts, the putrefying corpse of all dead colours, the sun’s humus, earth-color, resurrection’s winding-sheet, the shroud of life itself, the mound of eternity, the tomb of Light, Eternity’s burial vault.
Look too intensely at blue and your eye sees indigo. Look too intensely at red and you see garnet. If you look too intensely at yellow it turns green. A hypnotic stare injects blue into everything.
Water meanders on a completely smooth surface and toboggans down the glossiness of leaves.
The idealist walks on tiptoe, the materialist on his heels.
Ah is the shortest of human cries, Oh the longest. Man is born in an Ah and dies in an Oh, for birth is immediate and death is like an airplane taking off.
I am the owner of my shoulders, the tenant of my hips.
No matter how much leaves are fixed face to face they always look at each other aslant, whereas all fruits end up head-on however carelessly jumbled. A bunch of flowers is a house of coloured cards. A heap of fruit is a hive of coloured bees.
The flower has no weekday self, dressed as it always is in Sunday clothes.
The light would reach us more quickly in the morning and fade more slowly at night if the whole earth were divided into vast flower beds that called forth the light at dawn and clutched it longer at nightfall. Nature instituted summer for flowers long before man took summer over for his own uses.
To ‘hang on every word’ means to suck the eyes of the speaker.
The diamond scintillates less brilliantly when the fingers move rapidly than when they undulate and pivot. Glossy leaves throw off less light in a high wind than under the calm wavering of a breeze. Brusque movements of the eye cast a single gleam, and slow movements add a thousand others.