If only the big combo
Could come together
Become fused, merging
Into something other:
A magic orderly, precise,
Science raggedy, unruly,
An art exquisite yet raw
To fashion a language
With the suppleness of silence:
What vantage this vista
Would provide with a view
To die for, to kill for,
Into the realm of the marvellous:
Causing old habits of thoughts
To be sloughed like so many snakes-skins,
We would construct clouds into castles
And turn castles into cumulus clouds:
We would be welcome in a world
Where the everyday so-and–such
Glows with the sheen of the miraculous
Where a glance, the merest touch,
Opens up opportunities,
With all the divine hazards,
And dream chances,
Of a new dialectics of desire.
The most famous of the many outstanding works by the genius of the Northern Renaissance, Albrecht Durer’s etching Melencolia I (Melancholy I), is replete with esoteric and alchemical references and has been the subject of much debate and interpenetration. The title is taken from the German occultist Cornelius Agrippa’s theory of melancholy, in his influential book On the Occult Philosophy he states that in artists Melencolia Imaginativa predominates over both mind and reason.
A winged figure, Lady Melancholy sits slumped surrounded by symbolic objects. In Medieval and Renaissance medicine, melancholy was a humour caused by an excess of black bile and her posture suggests the contemplative attitude and the mental anguish produced in people who suffer with this temperament. Artists, philosophers, theologians and craftsmen were thought to particularly susceptible to melancholy and were often said to have a Saturnine nature, that is to be under the influence of the planet Saturn. Further allusions to Saturn can be found in the purse and keys which are traditional attributes of the patron god of melancholy.
Directly above Melancholy’s head is an hourglass showing the passing of time, and a magic square that adds up to 34 every which way. Additional references to alchemy can be found in the darkened countenance of the brooding figure, the so-called facies nigra, pointing to the adept that the first stage of the Great Work is nigredo(blackness), the putrefaction necessary for all creation. The geometric tools are symbols of various other stages of the magistery, leading up to the six-sided prism (imprinted with a faint human skull) which represents Prime Matter and the seven steps of the ladder, each rung a phrase in the Magnum Opus. The blazing comet in the sky and the rainbow heralds its final completion.
Contrary to the contemporary belief that melancholy has to be banished at all costs, either by chemical means or positive thinking, the Renaissance view of melancholy was that it was the necessary, preliminary stage of all creativity. Without the putrefaction of melancholy you cannot take the first step on the journey that will led to a transformation of matter and, more importantly, the self. Only art can produce this metamorphosis.
The ethereal portraits of Brazilian photographer Nadia Maria evokes the mysterious borderland between waking and dreams. Citing the hypnagogic visions glimpsed in the moments before sleep as the primary source of her creativity, Maria shows solitary figures (usually women) enmeshed in constellations of stars or seemingly about to undergo a transformation to an entirely different order of being. These photographs confront us with the beautifully bizarre revelations that we each experience nightly when we close our eyes and that we seek to dismiss every morning; though no light is strong enough to totally dispel that blissful darkness that is the source of all true inspiration.
A notorious image of the early cinema, the eye-ball slicing scene at the beginning of Un Chien Andalou (The Andalusian Dog) is a shocking example of Golden Age Surrealist provocation. This short film opens with a man (the master of Surrealist shock tactics himself, Luis Bunuel) lazily sharpening a cut-throat razor, with a cigarette stuck in his mouth. He steps out onto the balcony where he stares at the full moon. In a stunning visual rhyme Bunuel slices a woman’s eye-ball and then we witness clouds dissecting and momentarily obscuring the moon. Then the movie proper starts.
Eyes, as I previously noted in Chance Encounters 2, play an important part in Surrealist symbolism. Sight is undoubtedly the primary of all senses, however for the Surrealists vision is not merely a matter of perceiving external phenomena , the visionary experience that transforms reality springs from the unconscious mind and manifests itself most markedly in dreams and madness. Only by completely abandoning ourselves to the dictates of the unconscious and following our deepest hidden impulses, not matter how perverse, can such a transformation be achieved.