train cantata

Such a sensuous experience, traveling in a rattling slow train with its windows open - immersed in sounds that smell like iron , sounds that feel like sheer wheezing speed. Never will an air-conditioned, shock-proof fast train be able to match this physical sensation of speed in a jangling local train.

I don’t suppose Bach has written any of his cantatas to be heard on a continuous bass of a rumbling train. But devoutly straining to follow the intertwining lines of a violin and an alto voice - instrument & human voice become interchangeable. And completely captive to these voices, it then hardly matters anymore whether the buzz of the basso continuo is the rumble of a train or of an organ.

the last one to stay with us / le dernier de tous

It is not the most uplifting knowledge: the fact that we are utterly captive to physiological processes, not only in our obvious physical functioning, but also in our deepest sense of Self, in our thinking and feeling.

The Man Who Mistook his Wife for a Hat

Tales of neurological dysfunctions are always harrowing – they seem so utterly without redemption or catharsis, unless … unless they’re told by a sensitive humanist as Oliver Sacks . As a clinical neurologist he has studied neurological deficits resulting in all kinds of devastating losses: “loss of speech, loss of language, loss of memory, ….” . As a sympathetic human being, as a humanistic writer he is interested in how the “person", the "human being” deals with these pathological aggressions. As he writes in the introduction to his book “The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat”, there’s always “a reaction, on the part of the affected individual, to restore, to replace, to compensate for and to preserve its identity”.

Anyone with lesser scientific credentials than Sacks might be dismissed as being naïve in this stubborn, humanist respect for a “self” which remains in the midst of physiological disintegration (1). As it is, his poignant stories show us human identity as both frail, utterly subject to illness and decay, and resilient. In a story about a man suffering from Tourette’s syndrome he asks rhetorically “How will, how can, the ego stand this bombardment? Will identity survive? Can it develop, in face of such a shattering, such pressures – or will it be overwhelmed, to produce a “Tourettized soul? ”. And yes, apparently identity can move beyond the pathology, for instance , in this story, through channeling the wild Tourette’s tics in brilliant jazz improvisations.

Or in the case of a man suffering from severe amnesia, living in a string of unconnected present moments, without any remaining capacity to form human bonds or even to hold a thought for longer than just a moment : “But if he were held in emotional and spiritual attention – in the contemplation of nature or art, in listening to music, in taking part in the Mass in chapel – the attention, its “mood”, its quietude would persist for a while and there would be in him a pensiveness and peace we rarely, if ever, saw during the rest of his life at the home."

It is quite moving (and consoling? ) to see how convinced Sacks is of the redemptive potential of art – which, in its free and disinterested appeal to our senses & sensibilities, seems to be able to concentrate whatever mental energies we may have left and thus to keep us from being at the mercy of “crude drives and impulsions ”. Sacks sincerely believes in the “undiminished possibility of reintegration by art, […] by touching the human spirit: and this can be preserved in what seems at first a hopeless state of neurological devastation” .

When the Self is Sniffing & Sneezing

But let’s move to less traumatic realms to test the behavior of our Self amidst physiological turmoil. Let’s take those instances when we’re just tired or hungry or feverish. Not only will we be cycling uphill less swiftly, but also may we be less likely to arrive promptly to the conclusion that 1 plus 1 equals 2. Unless we’re professional cyclists our sense of self will be hardly affected by the muscle-fatigue but how about that diminishment in the mental faculties?

Amongst the latter it seems that in particular Reason and Logical Thinking are the first to go under duress (2). Ah, Reason! That summit of human capabilities! Yes, but is it really integral to our sense of Self, to our Identity? Important, valuable and indispensable (3) as they are, Reason or Logical Thinking somehow seem like neutral qualities: though they unquestionably differentiate us, they do not really characterize us as a person (4). In a way it’s like with muscles – some people just have a more powerful apparatus than others. And mere swings in the sugar level, for instance, will affect the functioning of both Muscle and Logical apparatus.

Now, in any modern competitive environment one is definitely judged according to one’s Reasoning skills (these days less so on muscle power) and one cannot really afford any lapses in logical thinking. There will always be those specimens of the human race who prey on any perceived weakness and who will not fail to humiliate the hapless feverish & sneezing human, rejoicing in their own contrasting strength of mental grasp. (5) But thank god there are also those other specimens of the human race (and yet, they are too few) who show concern when someone is ill – who value and respect people for more than their Logical Skills.

But so, think of that hapless feverish human – who is dead tired, who cannot cycle, who cannot think logically: what kind of “I” is there still left, which Selves do still remain?

Well not the foreign language Selves at any rate (it takes only a simple cold or an empty stomach or a bit of stress to have me helplessly fumbling for words in any language but my own). Nor does the practical, problem-solving Self seem a very resilient persona (goes to show that is only an acquired trait - ready to go at the first spot of trouble - well, in my case, that is). But hopefully, yes hopefully, there does remain a courteous & affectionate Self, who treats people with love and respect. (6) And a feeling, intuitive Self? Oh yes definitely, no doubt, the feeling Self remains and perhaps even all the more so, when fever has dissolved all other, pedantically analytical and logical, Selves.

And truly, nothing like a slight fever to promote full immersion into an art experience – visual arts, I would say, or music – an immersion without reserve, without the distancing chaperone of logic. And though eloquency often fails me in such conditions of feebleness (no strength to compose a sentence let alone a full text, no energy even to read a longer text) I can still happily & feverishly tinker then with photos, perhaps I'm even all the more spontaneously and contentedly immersed in the visual , when not under the strains of reasoning. (7)

And when being ill, while not interested in food at all, I am still sensitive to the quality of light, to the slow dances of shadows, to far-off echoing sounds of playing children and humming birds, to the smell of rain, … Oh yes, under duress, that inner atmospheric barometer might be the very last one of my Selves to go ….

And there will always be Proust ...

But in matters of neurology and self-observation the last word of course has to go, yet again, to Proust (8) :

“For some moments, […] I stayed alone with this little inner person, who greeted the rising sun with a song. Of all the Selves which compose our personality, it are not the most apparent that are most essential for us. In myself, when ill health will have slain one after another, there will still remain two or three Selves, more enduring than the rest, notably a certain philosopher who is happy only when he has discovered in two works of art, in two sensations, a common element. But the last of all, I have sometimes wondered whether it would not be this little weather-fellow, like the one the optician at Combray had in his shop window to forecast the weather, and who, taking off his hood when the sun shone, would put it on again if it was going to rain. This little weather-man, […] I do think that in my final hour of agony, when all my other ‘selves’ will be dead and gone, if a ray of sunshine were to break through the clouds, while I am breathing my last breath, the little barometer-fellow will feel quite comfortable, and will take off his hood to sing: “Ah! at last, fine weather!”

Selves hidden in the footnotes

(1) Colin Mc Ginn in a NYRB review of Sacks’ latest book “Musicophilia: Tales of Music and the Brain -
“ His implied message is therefore one of tolerance and understanding. […] The preservation of self: that could be the motto for all of Sacks's writing on neurological disorders. […] There is always an "I" there, someone to whom things matter; so long as there is consciousness at all, there is a subject of that consciousness. Even if you can't tell your wife from a hat, there is still a you that must deal with this disability. Ultimately, then, Sacks's clinical case studies are exercises in love and respect »
A recent experiment showed that when sugar-levels are too low, people were less likely to take decisions based on logical thinking but would rather resort to Intuition, which apparently needs less glucose to operate. “It takes a lot of nervous energy to do logical thinking, whereas intuition takes very little (since intuition usually requires the mind to be free-wheeling or idling). When the nervous energy of the brain runs down then the mind switches off logical thinking”
(3) Is that enough of an ode to Reason? I really wouldn’t want to look like a reason-basher here!
(4) Because Reason is supposed to be objective/universal, not subjective?
(5) Personal note: I should learn to stay home from work when I feel ill – that heroic work-presenteism of mine only gets me into trouble – and besides, I hate being humiliated
(6) Well, one can always hope and try, but truth is: when I’m feverish and tired I often snap at people. Though on the other hand, I do seem to be more, um, softer or compassionate when I run a fever, more tolerant of human fallibility & frailty in general. My own feebleness as a source of affection for my “fellow creatures of chance’s kingdom” ?
(7) This ‘words versus visuals’ passage echoes another blog-discussion about analytical and distancing words versus ‘unthinking’ visuals --- the visual does seem to appeal to a more intuitive self, and feels less exhausting, requiring less disciplined, systematic reasoning.
(8) Proust - La Prisonnière p6 - « Pendant quelques instants […] je restais en tête à tête avec le petit personnage intérieur, salueur chantant du soleil […] De ceux qui composent notre individu, ce ne sont pas les plus apparents qui nous sont le plus essentiels. En moi, quand la maladie aura fini de les jeter l’un après l’autre par terre, il en restera encore deux ou trois qui auront la vie plus dure que les autres, notamment un certain philosophe qui n’est heureux que quand il a découvert, entre deux œuvres, entre deux sensations, une partie commune. Mais le dernier de tous, je me suis quelquefois demandé si ce ne serait pas le petit bonhomme fort semblable à un autre que l’opticien de Combray avait placé derrière sa vitrine pour indiquer le temps qu’il faisait et qui, ôtant son capuchon dès qu’il y avait du soleil, le remettait s’il allait pleuvoir. [.. .] je crois bien qu’à mon agonie, quand tous mes autres « moi » seront morts, s’il vient à briller un rayon de soleil, tandis que je pousserai mes derniers soupirs , le petit personnage barométrique se sentira bien aise, et ôtera son capuchon pour chanter : « Ah ! enfin, il fait beau »

shadow play / vocabulaire des ombres

a primer on light

Suppose you’d want to do a post about shadows & light and , while procrastinating at your computer, you’d browse the web for inspiration. You would soon wish yourself back on the high school benches to learn all about Optics and Physics and Neurobiology.
Who would not want to discover the secrets of The Nature of Light ( is it a Wave? Is it a Particle? ) and learn about how it Reflects and Refracts ? Who would not fall for the seductions of Atmospheric Optics , studying the delicate interactions between air, dust, haze, water and Light ( Why is the Sky Blue? Why are Clouds White? ). And of course one would love to get a crash-course in anatomy and neuro-biology to understand why we see what we see - or rather, how we make up what we see. (1)

shadows defined

But since neither my key-board nor my failing brain is set up for mathematical formulas, we’ll have to stick to good old words to approach our subject, and to visual observations and general ruminations.
The number of entries (Fourteen!!! not counting the a’s & b’s) for “Shadow” in the Merriam-Webster dictionary already indicates the extent of the human fascination with Shadows. A fascination which has fostered a range of connotations going way beyond the humble shadow’s status as a derivative optical phenomenon.
In order to thwart false expectations, I’ll be therefore transparent about my own motivations for this post: sharing my sensuous-emotional response to the visuals of shadows & light, in reality and in art.
So there will be no gloom & doom in this post, hardly any drama - at the very most there may be some faint metaphysical mutterings. In Merriam Webster definition terms this means I’ll safely concentrate on meanings 1,5 & 8.

1) : partial darkness or obscurity within a part of space from which rays from a source of light are cut off by an interposed opaque body
5) : the dark figure cast upon a surface by a body intercepting the rays from a source of light (lovely definitions, conjuring up a scientific graph with purposeful ligh-waves brutally blocked off by an unwaveringly opaque volume)
8) : a shaded or darker portion of a picture

I am moved by shadows ...

This being said, there’ s no denying, I am moved by shadows and reflections, and by how they indicate the intensity of light & the time of day – like this morning, waking up and seeing the shadowy edges of the curtains projected on the wall (announcing a ravishingly sunny day) . Or later, staring out of the window – coming under the spell of a silent cast shadow falling on the glaringly white brick wall.
I am somehow soothed by the refractions & reflections of light & its many shades – like the light refracted by the dust in a room, drawing hovering sun & shadow stripes on the wall, late in the afternoon. And ah, the elation of light bouncing off a water surface or an iron balustrade. And what else are shadows but the silent companions of all these delicious light effects.

But still, what would be so particularly poignant about light and shadows? Apart from their general usefulness to help us see and interpret a three-dimensional world? Perhaps it’s their sheer fleeting quality, their utter complicity with Time (and thus with us, transient beings) . As Gombrich states quite factually: “a shadow is determined by the hour of the day and the time of the year, both governing the position of the sun at a given latitude”.

Though of course it is Bonnefoy, with his poetic intuitions, who gets closest to this pathos of shadows, and to why one would want to celebrate them :

a desire to face the world in its most fleeting aspects, seemingly least charged with being, to consecrate them so that I may be saved with them” .

And: “what the cast shadow really designates, as the hand on a dial, is such place at such moment”

shadows in art

As an eminently visual phenomenon, it is odd that the representation of shadows & chiaroscuro has for so long been rather the exception than the rule in art. Of course, insofar as art is expected to represent symbols or “essences”, the fleetingness of shadows would be very disruptive indeed. Imagine shadows messing up the eternally frozen Egyptian images…

But also in the early Italian renaissance art, clearly on the representational track, cast shadows are rare. Though they did want to represent reality and more specifically reality as seen from the viewpoint of a spectator. And so they did use all the illusionary tricks from perspective to modeling via shading (3) . But they were still out to catch “essences” , and would only allow the use of shading to create the illusion of three-dimensional volumes on a two-dimensional plane. And perhaps a few attached shadows here & there to enhance the illusion of depth. So yes, shadow-modeling as a useful means to conquer space on the canvas. But no explicit cast shadows, since these were deemed to clutter and confuse an otherwise harmonious composition.

It is in the Northern Renaissance art that light and shadows tentatively gain prominence, in the wake of the Northern bent for realism and individualism. The Northern masters wanted to represent people, landscapes and interiors “in the uniqueness of the moment, not in the abstraction of the essence” . And “ the individuality of the moment is represented by the shadow of objects” (Todorov) .

A personal explanation for this particular northern sensitivity to atmosphere and light is that just because light is so rare in the north, it is considered to be all the more precious. Also, the hazy northern skies soften the light & refract it in a thousand nuances. Whereas in the South the sheer abundance of light and its glaring harshness may mean it is less avidly and lovingly observed.

As to this North-South contrast, Gombrich compares to good effect paintings of madonna’s by two 15th C contemporaries. The Italian master ( Masaccio ) evokes a regal presence on a throne, and masterly suggests solidity and volume through modeling via shading, but introduces only the barest of cast shadows and does not evoke any atmosphere. Whereas the northern master ( Campin ) places his Madonna in a very common interior with a fire burning in the hearth, with a towel on the rack, with many everyday objects, all casting shadows. So, in contrast to the imposing eternal essence in the Italian version this Northern madonna has become a living human being , present in this world, inhabiting a passing moment.

This advent of fleeting light & shadows in art is quite quite moving ….., not only because it marks the advent of the individual existence, of the here & now in art, but also because it acknowledges this oh so human oh so sensuous sensitivity to the vagaries of light.

Of course, during the baroque period shadowy mysteriousness and dramatic cast shadows abound - both Southern and Northern masters of that époque excelled in chiaroscuro and knew how to exploit the dramatic potential of dark & light contrasts.

But perhaps the more modest genre and interior paintings are dearer to me: a maid sweeping a room while light filters through the windows, a dark corridor with at the end the sunny rectangular patch of a door opening, the hazy reflections and shadows of church windows and pillars suggested on a wall. And then I think of the paintings by Pieter de Hooch, Emmanuel De Witte …

And yes, the more fleeting & humble, the more consoling and soothing I find it to behold the light and shadow play in paintings (5).

not that many footnotes
(1) Dale Purves & Timothy J. Andrews (department of neuro-biology University of Durham):
“because the complexities of a three-dimensional world are projected onto a two-dimensional receptor sheet, the interpretation of most retinal images is equivocal” - we’re just guessing at what we’re seeing, ready to be fooled by illusions – we all know that, don’t we.

(2) Merriam Webster – definition of shadow
1: partial darkness or obscurity within a part of space from which rays from a source of light are cut off by an interposed opaque body 2: a reflected image 3: shelter from danger or observation 4 a: an imperfect and faint representation b: an imitation of something : COPY 5: the dark figure cast upon a surface by a body intercepting the rays from a source of light 6: PHANTOM 7 plural : DARK 1a 8: a shaded or darker portion of a picture 9: an attenuated form or a vestigial remnant 10 a: an inseparable companion or follower b: one (as a spy or detective) that shadows 11: a small degree or portion : TRACE 12: a source of gloom or unhappiness 13 a: an area near an object : VICINITY b: pervasive and dominant influence 14: a state of ignominy or obscurity

(3) Shading, as illuminatingly defined by MW:
1 : the use of marking made within outlines to suggest three-dimensionality, shadow, or degrees of light and dark in a picture or drawing

(4) My favourite books on shadows (& these books’ ideas permeate this post)

  • Tzvetan Todorov : Eloge de l’individu – Ode to the Individual
    (" ils sont représentés dans l’unicité de l’instant, non dans l’abstraction de l’essence / Represented in the uniqueness of the moment, not in the abstraction of the essence")

  • E.H. Gombrich : Ombres Portées – Shadows. The Depiction of Cast Shadows in Western Art

  • Yves Bonnefoy : l’improbable et autres essais (in two essays, one about Byzantium,and another about humour and the cast shadow in art) - useful quotes:
    " Les deux intuitions discordantes de la pensée d’Occident, ce qui est périssable – et destin – et ce qui est éternel / The two discordant intuitions in Western thought, that which is perishable - and fate – and that which is eternal "

  • "Un désir en moi qui recherchait sa patrie, celui d’affronter notre monde en ses aspects les plus fugitifs, apparemment les moins chargés d’être, pour les sacrer et que je sois sauvé avec eux"
    "Profondément ce que l’ombre portée désigne, comme l’aiguille sur un cadran, c’est tel lieu à tel instant […]"

  • Michael Baxandall: Ombres et Lumières – Shadows and enlightenment

(5) The metaphysical anguish (de Chirico) and the heart rending immobility of shadows (Hopper) may be treated in some later post. And yet, I don’t know why, but the last picture to insert already in this post just had to be this Hopper. ..

echoes (III)

Weiss und Leicht:
lass es wandern

White and Light:
let it drift

Paul Celan