Wednesday, August 08, 2012

`Reason's Dream Become Nightmare and Graves'

Helen Pinkerton has kindly made me a book from scratch, one she wrote and illustrated. Bright Fictions: Poems on Works of Art brings together twenty-seven of her poems about paintings, sculptures, pottery and photographs with reproductions of each work, ranging from a third-millennium-B.C.E. sculpture to an etching by Leonard Baskin. The poems are, she says in an author’s note, “meditations on the actual works of art,” and except for the photographs Helen has viewed each piece in person. Her book is spiral-bound and measures 8½ by 11 inches, and she inscribed the title page to me. Helen has already collected twenty-three poems from the “Bright Fictions” series in Taken in Faith: Poems (Swallow Press, 2002). Here is “On Goya’s Duel with Cudgels (ca. 1820), a `Black Painting’ in the Prado”: 

“Uncertain light limns hills obscure and sere.
Mired in quicksand thick as the atmosphere,
Two unknown men, who may be son and father
Or riven brothers, raise bludgeons to each other.
Starkly-avowed, this reign of rage and pride,
Of reason’s dream become nightmare and graves,
Makes time thereafter, Goya, seem prophesied:
Heaven not brought down to earth as you dreamed, young,
But hell raised up, an open field for knaves.”

Between 1820 and 1824, Goya made fourteen paintings on the interior walls of La Quinta del Sordo, his farmhouse outside Madrid. He applied oils directly to moistened plaster, a technique called al secco. Known collectively as the Black Paintings, the images are hellish, not what most of us would wish to look at while brushing our teeth, though a reproduction of Perro semihundido (Head of a Dog) hangs in our livingroom. Like all of the Black Paintings, Duelo a garrotazos (Duel with Cudgels) has inspired a thousand allegorical readings, many quite fanciful and rooted in politics. Two men mired in mud hammer each other with wooden clubs – a neat rendering of the human condition. The art critic Robert Hughes, who died Monday at age seventy-four, writes in Goya (2003): 

“Both men are doomed.  They will drown in this mud, whether they keep fighting or not. The face of the peasant on the left is a mask of blood. The one on the right throws up his arm to ward off his enemy’s blows. Nothing can stop this unappeasable feud. One thinks of Bosnia, of Northern Ireland—a condensation of all civil wars into this one murderous pair, Cain and Abel, or perhaps more properly Cain and Cain, in their grubby clothes. We don’t know what they are fighting over. It hardly matters.”

A generation earlier, Goya had written “El sueƱo de la razon produce monstrous” on an engraving in his Los Caprichos series: “The sleep of reason produces monsters.” Helen writes: “…this reign of rage and pride, / Of reason’s dream become nightmare and graves.” Rather than looking back to the Napoleonic era, Helen suggests, Goya foresees the industrialized horrors of the twentieth century and beyond, “hell raised up.”


Anonymous said...

"Sueno" means "dream", not sleep. Reason doesn't reason when it dreams, though it may seem to to the dreamer.

Surely the work of Eric Voegelin, so important to H.P., informs this poem. His warnings about feverish dreams of deluded mankind trying to construct societies that "immanentize the eschaton" echo in the background of "Heaven brought down to earth... et. seq."

B.R. said...

Thanks for this post. What a wonderful gift to receive.

Do you suppose that Goya means that reason - raw reason - can only produce/engender/dream the monstrous - or - that reason - laid aside - can only produce the monstrous?


p.s. tiny typo in the first paragraph: "Helens..."