Bert Olivier
Bert Olivier

Literature, art, space, and the secret of life

It never ceases to amaze me that the arts – foremost among them literature, sculpture, architecture, music, painting and cinema – are able to capture in their respective medium(s) virtually everything that makes life worth living; in a phrase, the ‘secret of life’. My recent re-reading of all my favourite John Fowles novels is what has reminded me of this powerfully. Take this passage from ‘The Magus’ (Panther Books, 1983), where the eponymous ‘Magus’ of the story, Maurice Conchis, undertakes showing the the anti-hero, Nicholas, ‘the innermost secret of life’ (Fowles 1983: 146-147).

“It was a stone head, whether of a man or a woman it was difficult to say. The nose had been broken short. The hair was done in a fillet, with two sidepieces. But the power of the fragment was in the face. It was set in a triumphant smile, a smile that would have been smug if it had not been so full of the purest metaphysical good humour. The eyes were faintly oriental, long, and as I saw, for Conchis put a hand over the mouth, also smiling. The mouth was beautifully modelled, timelessly intelligent and timelessly amused.

“‘That is the truth. Not the hammer and sickle. Not the stars and stripes. Not the cross. Not the sun. Not gold. Not yin and yang. But the smile.’…

“He was right. The little sunlit thing had some numen; or not so much a divinity, as a having known divinity, in it; of being ultimately certain…

“‘Tell me where it came from.’

“‘From Didyma in Asia Minor.’

“‘How old is it?’

“‘The sixth or seventh century before Christ’…

“The little head watched our watching; bland, certain, and almost maliciously inscrutable. It flashed on me that it was also the smile that Conchis sometimes wore; as if he sat before the head and practised it. At the same time I realized exactly what I disliked about it. It was above all the smile of dramatic irony, of those who have privileged information. I looked back up at Conchis’s face; and I knew I was right.”

With his signature combination of philosophical insight and literary evocation, Fowles brings word-art and sculpture together here, infusing it, simultaneously, with some primordial quasi-religious awareness of what he calls ‘divinity’ – the noun ‘numen’ (related to the adjective, ‘numinous’) signifies something that surpasses human finitude, and impresses upon one a seemingly lasting awareness of intrinsic, ineradicable value, a fountainhead which surpasses all specific religious affiliation, and even death, insofar as the little stone face reflects ‘ultimate certainty’.

In Daniel Martin (Triad Grafton 1977) there is a passage that is just as evocative of life’s ‘secret meaning’ as this one, but here Fowles alludes to a specific place called Tsankawi in New Mexico. The specific modulation of space at Tsankawi – like the little stone sculpture – infuses in the sojourner (represented here by Dan and Jenny) who abides there a while, as well as the reader who experiences it vicariously through the evocative power of words, a comparable sense of transcending time and space in their temporary insertedness in this inimitable, unique place (Fowles 1977: 346-347):

“I have never quite understood why some places exert this deep personal attraction, why at them one’s past seems in some mysterious way to meet one’s future, one was somehow always to be there as well as being there in reality…In some way, the mesa transcended all place and frontier; it had…haunting and mysterious personal familiarity…but a simpler human familiarity as well, belonging not just to some obscure and forgotten Indian tribe, but to all similar moments of supreme harmony in human culture; to certain buildings, paintings, musics, passages of great poetry. It validated, that was it; it was enough to explain all the rest, the blindness of evolution, its appalling wastage, indifference, cruelty, futility. There was a sense in which it was a secret place, a literal retreat, an analogue of what had always obsessed my mind; but it also stood in triumphant opposition, and this was what finally, for me, distinguished Tsankawi from the other sites: in them there was a sadness, the vanished past, the cultural loss; but Tsankawi defeated time, all deaths. Its deserted silence was like a sustained high note, unconquerable.”

Places like this one are not often encountered, as Fowles’s Daniel intimates. To be sure, his allusion to Tsankawi as belonging to “…moments of supreme harmony in human culture; to certain buildings, paintings, musics, passages of great poetry”, does enlarge the catchment area somewhat – most of us could excavate examples of those from our memory – but his concluding musical “high note, unconquerable”, names something which represents in a person’s life a beacon that stands unassailably above the ocean of life, whether in tranquillity or tempest.

Like the little, sculpted stone head, Tsankawi appears to instantiate a latent, if not actual protopolis with ‘numen’, that almost ineffable quality of being somehow connected with the primal source of meaning and value, which surpasses all specifics. It was therefore, paradoxically, both utterly particular, singular, AND universal in the precise sense of standing in, metonymically, for the universe, for what imparts meaning (in the existential sense) universally.

I’m not sure I know a place quite like that, which resolutely stares death in the face. At the level of places or moments in the arts that embody ‘moments of supreme harmony in human culture’, yes, I have experienced some candidates, as I’m sure many readers have. On my list would be Gaudi’s inimitable modernist ‘cathedral’ (if one could even call it that), the Sagrada Familia, in Barcelona – in the interior of which we spent hours in awed silence, almost forgetting to take photographs.

I would also put John Martin’s romantic painting, The Deluge (in the British Art Centre at Yale), on my list, as incarnation of Kant’s ‘mathematical sublime’, which elevates the viewer even as it reminds one of one’s insignificance. And in the realm of contemporary serious music, there are some instances of Penderecki’s oeuvre that resemble pinnacles of hope in a time of chaos, and impart a listening experience in an attentive listener that are second to none, including his Kosmogonia, Cello Concerto No 1, and second violin concerto, the Metamorphosen.

Even in popular music one sometimes encounters music that transports one’s soul, as it were – even as it moves one to dancing involuntarily – such as, in my case, Don McLean’s American Pie, whose blend of music and supremely poetical lyrics succeeds in lifting one above the imagined death of the very artform that it projects so imaginatively. Some of Leonard Cohen’s music also belongs here, for me, including some covers performed by other artists, such as Jennifer Warnes’s rendition of his Bird on a Wire – my personal musical motto regarding the elusiveness of freedom.

If, under duress, I were to designate a place that is comparable to Dan’s (Fowles’s) Tsankawi, I believe it would not be a former cultural site like Tsankawi, but a natural one. And it is a tussle between two mountain spaces that have become much loved ‘places’ for me – South Korea’s Seoraksan mountainscapes and the mountains overlooking Greyton in the Western Cape, both of which receive me and my partner like long-lost friends when we set foot on them. Unlike the previously inhabited mesa of Tsankawi, however, it is precisely the sheer, unadulterated quality of ‘nature’ in all her fecundity as well as inscrutability that attracts me in these two mountainscapes, both of which have that tenuous attribute of ‘numen’ which Fowles finds in the sculpted head and the singular space of Tsankawi.

Just this morning, when it started raining softly in Greyton, I grabbed my stick, my cap and put on my climbing boots to welcome the ‘dance of our sister’ (“…die dans van ons suster”, from Eugene Marais’s “Die Dans van die Reën), where it was being performed in the little town as well as on the surrounding mountains. It was sheer joy to feel the rain on my face, my chest, back, legs and arms, eventually getting soaked to the skin while I climbed along one of my favourite mountain paths, occasionally turning around to marvel at the enigmatic veil that the rain had drawn over Greyton’s foliage-rich façade. I was in contact with the matrix of our being, this time without the mediation of great art.

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