The Wedding at Cana

Jesus turned water into wine. The monks of the San Giorgio Monastery commissioned a painting of the event, eleven yards wide, to hang in their refectory. Napoleon stole it, and it hangs in the Louvre.

Here the miracle is demonstrated. The gentleman is painted lifesize.

They are a lively lot, but I am not at all clear what they are doing.

I doubt such Corinthian columns were in style in Galilee.

I think this is the happy couple. As Jesus is at the centre, they are shunted to the side.

People ignore or distract the musicians. They are not valued as they should be, and not by Veronese, either: a bow could not play that lute.

It hangs opposite the Mona Lisa, so most people pay it no attention.

Real and conventional feelings

How does it feel, to be real?

I am scrolling facebook, feeling the things one feels scrolling facebook. At a joke I feel happy. At something moving, I feel moved. At something political, I feel the feeling appropriate for my tribe- anger or hope, derision or inspiration. Other tribes feel the same feelings at different stimuli. These are simple feelings I share with many people. It is easy to know the right feeling, and to feel good at feeling it. So facebook is a warm comfort-blanket, insulating me from reality. I could be plugged into the Matrix.

There is something I promised to do. Scrolling, I am only dimly aware of it. I will do that later, and that makes me feel mostly OK about not doing it though later never comes. The conventional feelings get in the way.

I close my computer. How do I feel about what I promised to do? I do not want to do it. I feel fear. I sit with that and discern underneath that is a feeling of hopelessness: I find myself creating arguments why doing it is counter-productive, and though I promised I would be forgiven for not doing it. And also self-loathing, at perceived uselessness, which is exacerbated by scrolling facebook. I am writing this today because I did what I promised, just in time. Yesterday I did not, because I got into arguing with a transphobe on facebook.

Doing it, I have fantastic things going through my mind and realise they are symbols or indicators of anger. The anger, now, is at something particular, and energy for the task I am completing. It is so good when that happens. I take care to complete the task: this requires love. Doing it at another time, I gave myself encouraging pep-talks. Do you still feel the fear? Yes. It’s not enough to stop you doing it, though. There is the feeling being and something else giving the pep-talks.

This is human. When I find myself bullying myself, that is probably a bad thing, but an inner dialogue, from two different points of view, can be advantageous: just as a group of people will make a better decision than individuals, so an individual may make a better decision having worked through different ways of thinking about a problem.

The only motivation is desire. If the desire is merely to survive, it wears us out. I need desire in my life that is more inspiring.

A Tory party leaflet, before the local elections. Vote Conservative because of the vaccine, it says! Ha! We have vaccine success because of public enterprise, with only a tiny input from business required by Tory ideology, because that particular public enterprise has not been Toried yet. Bribe-taking, body-piling, trans-hating, racist, lying Tories!

Looking for the art-work for this post, I had an experience I have not had since the last time I went to the National Gallery, over a year ago. With this Vermeer on my screen, I was overwhelmed with delight at the beauty of the pure colours, and their relationship to each other- that blue of the table-cloth, and the yellow of the sleeve, as an abstract composition before I spend time on the skin, and then the facial expression. It is ravishing. I get that experience with real art in galleries, and rarely with copies on screens. If you don’t get that with this picture, I hope you have it, somewhere in your life.

The Adoration of the Kings

Art to delight the eyes.

Andrea Mantegna, c1460, Venice.

StanisĹ‚aw Durink, c1480, Poland. The head and the body of the kneeling king appear naturalistic to me, but I don’t think he has quite got the way the head should sit on the neck right, or the roof supports. I love the faces, though. The kneeling man on the left seems more real than the others. Perhaps it is a portrait, of someone paying to be shown as a Wise Man seeing Christ, who looks out to catch our eye.

The Master of the Virgin among Virgins. This is a “Notname”, where the artist of several pictures is known by one of them. They were craftsmen, not honoured by remembering their names. Delft, 1490. It is customary to paint the building as a ruin, as Christ will make all things new, and the old world passes away.

The Master of the Antwerp Adoration, which is a different adoration to this one from c1510.

The Master of Hoogstraeten, early 16th century. Mists make the mountains in the distance blue, though the change in colour seems too sudden, to me.

Francesco Bassano the Younger, Venice, c1568. They seem tired, at the end of a hard journey:

A cold coming we had of it,
Just the worst time of the year
For a journey, and such a long journey:
The ways deep and the weather sharp,
The very dead of winter.’

Raphael, 1502, when he was 19.

Merry Christmas to you

However you are spending Christmas, alone or with others, catching covid, getting drunk, may you be blessed by the coming of Christ.

Eugene Delacroix, the education of the Virgin

Elizabeth Siddal, Madonna and child

Alice Havers, But Mary kept all these things and pondered them in her heart

Bouguereau, the song of the angels

Albert Aublet, the child sleeping in the desert

Marianne Stokes, angels entertaining the holy child

Bosch, The Adoration of the Magi

The Wise Men pay homage to the King of Peace.

Why are there four of them? Four richly dressed men, one hurriedly covering his nakedness but wearing his crown. I love the tassel on Balthazar’s sleeve, and the embroidery. His page looks at the naked man, not the Baby. Here’s Mary, calm and regal.

Above them, there is the star, and a far city with a windmill and fantastic towers.

The side panels have some lovely details: the people in the fields have no idea of the rich gifts, or they’d be over for a gawp. A man in a woman’s headdress tries to dry nappies before a fire. The smell of smoke might mask the smell of Jesus-poo. St Peter escorts a donor, portrayed in piety, identified by his coat of arms and motto “One for all”. How strange, to buy your way into Heaven!

The fleur de lys identifies a female donor and her same-named saint Agnes. A wolf menaces a woman, and a bear engulfs a man. At least the sheep is peaceful. I wonder what those long spoons are for.

When the triptych is closed, the faded outside shows Christ crucified, and a devil taking Judas’ soul to Hell.

Here is the whole.

Embarrassment

Is everyone like that? “I don’t know how long to look, or what to say,” said the man in the art gallery. Look if you are captivated, look away if you are uninterested, “say what you feel, not what you ought to say”. I imagine him trying to think what others who knew more than he would say, getting it wrong, and being laughed at. If you say what you feel, it is not wrong- at least, not in a gallery. “Normal is what everyone else is and you are not.” It’s hard to imagine other people trying to think what the cognoscenti would say, and trying to imitate it, and failing. It’s only me that could possibly do that. It’s only me, that anyone would ever laugh at.

And yet, there he is, saying he does not know, and pride has stopped him learning. Or self-effacement. His wife’s an artist! Would she never have told him what she saw in art? The horror at appearing not to know, that embarrassment, stopped him asking. Perhaps she never thought he would listen to her, because that would mean appearing not to know.

I went to art galleries because I knew that was the cultured thing to do, and it was good to appear cultured, then more and more I went to galleries because I love them. I don’t care what to say. Sometimes, “Wow” does. Possibly, “That smile looks enigmatic because the eyes and the mouth are expressing different emotions”. I have ticked off the Mona Lisa from my list, while I was going round galleries from an idea that I ought to, that that was the cultured thing to do.

Needing to appear to know makes doing the work to know unbearable. Curators know the power of some images, and will give a vista: you look through an opening, it catches your eye on the far wall of the next gallery, and you have to go and look- a bit like love at first sight. Art galleries can do that. You know so little about art you don’t even know what you like, and then you are captivated.

It’s easier to write this post when I think- other people might be like that too. Not everyone, around every situation- sailors know ships, artists know art, parliamentarians know parliament- but around most situations where there might be expertise, some people will know, and some will be uneasy, because they don’t, and imagine everyone else does. I’ve tried bluffing and been caught out.

There must be a sensible thing to do in this situation and I don’t know what it is, and when I do something else, people will laugh at me, or despise me, or exploit me. Who? Well, the Normal people, that is every single other person. But if only I felt like that there would be no word for it, and there is. It’s called embarrassment. I understand the oldest use of the word is for a debtor, who is embarrassed when they cannot pay. Pause to look it up. No, apparently: that use is “L19” and the play “Embarras de richesse” was performed in 1753. But the definition “perplexed” does not capture the harsh pain of it. “I will be found out!”

Embarrassment is the obverse of false pride, never wanting to be seen wanting. If I can admit ignorance many will be willing to teach me. I might give an exchange, teaching them something, or might accept the gift.

Fear of Embarrassment is one reason I fear to go out. The normal people- everyone else- will see me, and despise me. Pride, shame, stop me taking action, for fear of embarrassment. I think I inherit it from my mother, with her fear of her weird sexuality being found out.

That thing I could do is good enough. No-one will see it and despise it, because they won’t know the details or care enough to try to puzzle them out. What if it does not work? It will work well enough. It will be over soon enough.

I know a bit about art, enough to bother reading that Paolo Caliari, painting in Venice, was known as Veronese, the man from Verona. But who could not look up at this and see drama in it? It may help to know the cherub with a bow is Cupid, not necessarily to know it was commissioned by the Holy Roman Emperor Rudolf II for Prague Castle. If your response is simply, “Wow”, your friends will not feel the scorn you fear from them, and no-one else will care.

I have been wrestling with the thought of this post all day. How can I express the pain of embarrassment, and not write something which is unbearable to read? By dancing round the pain, and making a joke of it.

Christ is Risen

Queuing for the supermarket
is like walking a labyrinth.
Every few moments, some mindful steps.
Ribbons wind the path, and we turn in sunshine.
Blossom and birdsong are beautiful.
Over the fence,
a path curves into the woods,
in cool green light.

“Wonderful,” said a friend. “You woman of so many talents. I’d lose the last sentence…” Well. I wanted to share the idea, of walking in the queue being like in a labyrinth, but for me it evokes a specific place. The police are telling people not to buy inessential items or sunbathe in parks, and they have the power to impose on the spot fines, so if you want to enjoy sunshine, doing nothing at all, a supermarket queue is a permitted place. This one has trees, so even if a carpark is not beautiful there is beauty there worth my attention. And across a steel fence of sharp uprights a few inches apart, there is the Greenway, with the contrast of light through a scrap of mature woodland. There is a contrast in the last three lines, in the lowered intensity of words matching the difference of the vision. So there.

There is no afterlife. If “He descended into Hell”, as the Apostle’s Creed says, it is here, in this life on Earth, and if Jesus saved people from Hell as apocryphal Gospels state and the Orthodox Church celebrates in icons it is now, and how better when people are afraid of a pandemic?

I remember my first labyrinth. The path was marked in different coloured square tiles, and was square so that repeatedly one turned a 90° corner, facing a different vista, bushes, trees, grass, and angle of sunlight. I did it slowly, barefoot in March, in about 2007. It did the job, bringing me into the moment, contemplating the beauty, out of Hell. From that place one can begin to see what needs to be done in the moment now. I probably didn’t have covid two weeks ago, but I don’t know if I picked it up yesterday; and the sun is so hot in my back yard that I sit in the shade. A siren. Is it a police car come for someone who bought something inessential, or an ambulance taking away a sufferer? Someone tells me her child brought it home from school and they all had it, and were fine after a week. Someone has died. A neighbour shouts at his daughter for eating chocolate before tea.

Here is an icon of “The Harrowing of Hell”. Christ breaks the walls to rescue the imprisoned, while angels hold Satan down.

Western European art tended to go more for Last Judgment scenes, with sinners falling unequivocally and finally into torment, but there are some examples. In this by a follower of Bosch, the devils resist, and only some people take notice. Click for a larger version.

In this Cezanne, Christ saves individually and personally.

Another follower of Bosch. Most of the people are untrusting. The woman covering her nakedness makes me think of Eve.

I went to the supermarket
and came home with a poem.
Would the police deem it essential?

Anger and sadness, depression and motivation

-Part of you is dreadfully sad. You have this deep well of sadness in you. When you are motivated to do something that succeeds, you notice and hold that achievement. I am wondering what happens when you don’t, whether you judge yourself or care for yourself and feel the disappointment.

Of course I would like only success, and failure, sooner or later, makes me withdraw. “We tried that once and it didn’t work”- I have noticed people not trying something a second time when trying again seemed worthwhile to me, and I notice that I stop trying too. I could not bear yet another failure, so I stopped. Trying was too painful, but I needed to be screaming before I acknowledged the pain, and by then I could not try again.

-We can see the positives, achievement and celebration and success and doing is very much our culture, but not so good about seeing the other side of things, or fearing trying again, failing again. Fail better, said Beckett’s Krapp, showing the difficulty of it. I dwelt on this until we met again two weeks later. What stops me feeling the sadness, or the pain, is my anger. My anger is directed inwards, at me. What do I have to be sad about? I demand, disdainfully, contemptuously. It is like my other internal conflicts- the anger pushes down, the sadness pushes against it, I exhaust myself but do not move.

Richard Rohr wrote Your life is not about you– the ego at the centre of the Universe. It is about God. It is about a willing participation in a larger mystery. At this time, we do this by not rejecting or running from what is happening but by accepting our current situation and asking God to be with us in it. I thought, The spiritual lesson is learning the opposite of what you believed- I was worthless, not the centre of the Universe at all. Learning the different aspects of truth- my value as a unique being, my ordinariness as one among billions- I need a different corrective to the one Rohr administers.

What does the anger say? I sympathise more with the anger (as it is righteous, with something soft and weak). I am proud of it, so I bring it into consciousness and accept it. It seems appropriate. My anger tries to be stoic, accepting trouble and keeping on (except that it fails at that). I admire stoicism: Marcus Aurelius was seeking the Good Life, was the moral philosopher whether talking of getting out of bed or facing death. And my anger denies the sadness- go away and stop bothering me. It blocks the sadness from consciousness. Stop whining! it commands, and the whining becomes quieter though no less effective as a block to action.

The anger is inside me now, the anger is me, though it may be learned from the culture or the family, from voices outside. I don’t remember it, particularly, as an outside voice, condemning me- perhaps I learned it from others’ example.

Then I find the sadness, and I want to process it. I have the idea that if I could simply feel the sadness it would have told me all it needed to tell me, I would have learned from it all I needed to learn- not Don’t do that! but Take care doing that. And I have the idea that I am simply coaxing the sad part of me- I will listen to it for a time then say, that’s enough time now, come on- wheedling- coaxing- now take action. At which the sadness or the sad part digs its heels in again. It’s too painful right now. Rest a while more.

The anger is me. The sadness is me. Consciously I am more in the anger because it feels right, and it feels effective. Kicking my own backside was my way of motivation. Get on with it. It did actually work, for a while, it got me out of the house, going to work, achieving some things. Now if it works, if I get out of bed because I kick myself, I am wearied by it, it is heavy, an effort, it gives no joy. Anger and sadness are in stalemate.

-Where is your agency? she asks. Where’s the rest of you? I see your appreciation of culture and awe and beauty and there is something in you which wants to go and appreciate these things.

Well, that was my social training. My Dad showed me that culture required effort. We listened to Bartok string quartets expecting not to enjoy them- for them to be so alien, so complex, that my first feeling would be distressed boredom. Then with concentration and repeated listening the drama of the work, its progression and feeling, would reveal itself. I had this experience aged about 14 with The Silmarillion. I struggled through it, and found it weird, and the third time I read it I enjoyed it. Now I have The Mirror and the Light. It has huge sales, and I imagine more people will buy it than read it because they do not appreciate the effort it requires; but it will reward that effort. I am re-reading Bring Up the Bodies, knowing the characters better than I did. Its sequel is a 900 page novel which will be worth savouring.

In the same way I walked up the stairs in the National Gallery with a stool, because standing still too long is uncomfortable for me, turned right into the first gallery, turned left to the first painting and sat in front of it. That Veronese is fabulously beautiful. I retain it in my mind, and think of the legend of St Helena. And it is an effort. I need to concentrate, and I need to go and seek it out.

The anger is conscious, the sadness comes to consciousness. Partly it is an intellectual exercise, working out what might be there, partly it is trust in you as the expert who sees sadness in me, and partly it is inklings of feeling, peeking out from the woods, or surfacing briefly from the depths.

The anger is directed inwards, against myself, because I am weak and without status. If my anger is expressed outwards I will be squished. I got this from my family, and perhaps from their experience as human beings in the pecking order. I am at the bottom of the pecking order. Well, when I am sucking up to this admin worker, Oh, you lost a stone! How strong willed you are, how determined! What an achievement! Rather than about time, you’ll ruin your knees otherwise you fat slattern.

I have value only for what I can achieve, rather than in myself. So I need the opposite of Rohr’s lesson. I don’t blame my parents, it’s sins of the fathers, just the situation being passed on, like a mother rabbit bending to lick her kits, and the rabbit parasites march down her nose and onto them. It’s just what happens.

-Where is your agency? she asks again.

I have desire without action. I passionately want to be seen. And I want not to be seen, to hide away at home. My friend said it was as if I wanted to blend into the background in the most eyecatching way possible, which he might have wanted for himself. One of the best ways of hiding in plain sight is the steady achievement of the quiet efficient worker, who does what is expected.

-When do you feel these things rather than intellectualise about them?

When you talked about my sadness I felt irritation. Feeling the sadness- it’s too much to bear in consciousness, and I need to intellectually accept that, it’s part of the process of unearthing it.

HELP ME!

-That does not feel real. It feels like an intellectual exercise.

Well, yes. I am acting. I can only say that within several sets of quotation marks, and you can hear the quotation marks in my voice- but I am acting myself. That is what I want to say to you, perfectly sincerely, and I can only say it as an act.

-What stops you being as opposed to acting?

Lack of practice. Uselessness and inadequacy. A deep lack of trust, in myself and in the world. Those are the things that come to mind immediately.

-Is the better self totally intellectual?

No. But the feeling self, anger and sadness, is tied in such knots I can barely perceive it. Or there are feelings flooding through me, and I cannot speak them. I might type or write them.

-Does this practice, of seeking art, music and literature out, and working on them, apply to anything else?

It applies to ideas. I read the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy entry on Implicit Bias in order to understand implicit bias better. I found it a struggle. I want to understand. I’d like to walk down the street buying stuff, but I can’t see how to get to there from here. I want to meet people and get to know them, and I do, sometimes, talking to people with different experiences to see through their eyes. People learn what is fun by convention, then do that for fun because they don’t know any better, but by exploration we might find something rewarding.

St Pancras II

At the South end of St Pancras station stand the parting couple, embracing, a stolid sculpture based on Brief Encounter. Normally I enter on the lower level, so had not before noticed the plinth:

It is full of life. The faces are ordinary and heroic and beautiful, sometimes worn or old but unbowed.

Around them the tunnels and arches of the station swoop, in foreshortened relief.

What text distracts her from her hug? Or is the hug an imposition?

Commuter trains are as crowded as ever.

So crowded, so noble and determined they make me think of refugees.

A Sikh among the workers laying the track.

Further on is John Betjeman, standing on the floor not a plinth, hurrying for a train, but in this light he is too dark for a photograph. There are texts in the stone along the walk-way, quotes from Betjeman:

Here where the cliffs alone prevail
I stand exultant, neutral, free
And from the cushion of the gale
Behold a huge, consoling sea

A gentle guest, a willing host
Affection deeply planted-
It’s strange that those we miss the most
Are those we take for granted.

Beyond the throb of the engines is the throbbing heart of all