Wednesday, May 11, 2011

"Such Shaping Fantasies: Dali, Shakespeare, Juliet - Madmen All"

"Lovers and madmen have such seething brains,
Such shaping fantasies, that apprehend
More than cool reason ever comprehends.
The lunatic, the lover, and the poet
Are of imagination all compact.

William Shakespeare, "A Midsummer Night's Dream," V. i. 4-8

Today's date marks the birthday of Salvador Dali (1904-1989), an artist with "such [a] seething brain[-s] whose images and antics many, many people have described as 'crazy.' I make no claim whatsoever to judge the state of his mental health. Upon contemplation and a beginning study of some of his work, however, I see Dali as one who may well fit the role of "lunatic" in that trio.

While I feel that Will Shakespeare wanted the public to consider his 'Juliet' to be primarily a lover and himself a poet, those identities belong to both of them. As I showed in my last post 'Juliet'/the Dark Lady and 'Romeo'/Will Shakespeare are both themselves and 'the other,' a concept Andre Breton, the acknowledged founder of Surrealism, might very well recognize as "L'un dans l'autre," the one in the other. (Yet, in May 1926 Joan Miro and Max Ernst were excommunicated by the Surrealists for working on a production of the 'bourgeois' ballet of "Romeo and Juliet.")

Of note here and now is this: given that Romeo is referred to as a madman numerous times throughout the play, these lovers and poets are also lunatics. Yes. Salvador Dali, William Shakespeare, and 'Juliet' - lunatics all.

Salvador Dali had been aligned for some years with the group calling themselves Surrealists, led by Andre Breton, who considered the surreal to be "a dialogue with the other with what is encountered by way of dreams, coincidences, correspondences, the marvelous, the uncanny; a reciprocal exchange, connecting conscious and unconscious thought) ..." (Caws, Mary Ann; "Surrealism")

We are to understand that when a chance encounter with this 'other' arouses wonder in us, we have experienced the surreal. The Surrealists held that the only bounds keeping us from an experience of this wonder, of the surreal, are those bounds "which are self-imposed by the limitations of our own imagination and its verbal and visual expression." (Caws, Mary Ann; "Surrealism")

William Shakespeare, as our poet, manages to describe quite eloquently and fantastically just such an encounter with the marvelous, as well as the limitations of expressing that experience, when he has Bottom theWeaver paraphrase the Pauline test of I Corinthians 2:9 (KJV) in the following manner: "The eye of man hath not heard, the ear of man hath not seen, man's hand is not able to taste, his tongue to conceive, nor his heart to report what my dream was." ("A Midsummer Night's Dream," IV. i. 220-224)

What sets the lunatic, the lover, and the poet apart from, shall I say, the more bound, is that they have realized, each one, that they must transcend their self-imposed bonds to begin to have a dialogue with the wonderful, with the marvelous, let alone begin to translate this for others.

The ripple effect of the artist translating his or her dialogue with the other is seen again in the work of Akira Kurosawa, specifically his film "Dreams" (1990). Some dream sequences seem to be Kurosawa's attempt to translate his heart's report of a nuclear disaster, which blends Shakespeare's contemplation of dreams and Dali's contemplation of uncertainty in the nuclear age.

'Juliet' and Will Shakespeare found guidance for sustaining a dialogue with the other in the Lucan text (Luke 17:33) asserting that to lose your life is to keep it safe. Andre Breton, thus Surrealism, asserted the need to 'Leave everything.' He wrote in 'Les Pas perdus' ('The Lost Footsteps'), " ... Leave your hopes and fears ... Leave the substance for the shadow. Leave your easy life, leave what you are given for the future. Set off on the roads." (Caws, Mary Ann; "Surrealism")

Examine everything. Closely. If it needs shaking, shake it up. If it needs breaking, break it up. Should the probability that everything you know of your life then fall to pieces and land in fragments at your feet, turn to the marvelous, the wondrous, the magnificently dreamy. Follow "Such shaping fantasies, that apprehend/More than cool reason ever comprehends."

In my contemplation of certain pieces of Dali's late work, I see, I believe, that Salvador Dali and William Shakespeare saw much the same fantasies shaping the fragments at their feet: their loves, a feminine deity. Dali repeatedly offered up tantalizing and paradoxical images of Madonnas in his late work - "Cosmic (Exploding) Madonna," "Corpuscular Madonna," Maximum Speed of Raphael's Madonna," "Madonna of Port Ligat, first version (from the collection of Marquette University, my alma mater), and the final version of "Madonna of Port Ligat."

To my eye they appear in an uncertain state. Have they been blown apart or are thy pulling themselves together? This uncertainty could reflect Dali's fascination with Werner Heisenber's Uncertainty Principle: "It shows that a particle can't have both a precise position and precise momentum at the same time." (Siegried, Tom; "Strange Matters")

Dali felt strongly that humanity needed a vision to guide it through the nuclear age ushered in in the mid-1940s. These Madonnas are significant in my view because they are the vision he found when he slipped any bonds upon his imagination.

I now propose that 350 years before Dali's imagination and brushes and tints gave us his Madonnas, William Shakespeare gave us a constellation of images of a feminine deity, a constellation that formed after repeated encounters with the 'other,' the 'marvelous.' In the case of 'Juliet" that feminine deity is the ancient goddess Isis.

It is said Isis and Osiris were twins who fell in love in the womb and married after birth. Osiris's wicked brother Seth lures him to a beautiful wooden chest, traps him in it, and throws it into a river. Isis wanders the world in despair asking everyone if they have seen Osiris's chest, which has become incorporated into a pillar in the house of the king of Byblos. Isis gains a position in the king's household as a nurse. Every night she transforms herself into a swallow and flies about the pillar, crying. When she reveals the truth to the king she asks to be given the pillar.

"Having been given the chest, she takes it to a secluded place, opens it, and caresses the body of Osiris. By means of her great magical power and strong affection, Isis is able to revive Osiris's penis." The child Horus is conceived, but he is born prematurely and with weak lower limbs. "Throughout his infancy, when he was a weakling, Horus had been patiently nourished and protected by Isis until he was able to assume mature strength and defeat Seth, " (Kinsley, David; "The Goddesses' Mirror") who after his birth had reappeared, stolen Osiris's body, dismembered it and scattered the fragments.

I identify three significant elements of the story of Isis and Osiris in "Romeo and Juliet" : the Nurse, the grave/wedding bed imagery, and the fragments of a self imagery. The character of the Nurse, I confess, has always been a problem for me. Conventional wisdom has held her presence to be a bit of the sage and much of the clown, but that does not quite fit in my mind. Isis' identity as a nurse in the court of the king of Byblos is a step in the proper direction. In the context of this post I would have to say that I still have uncertainty about her.

I do note that in her rambling discourse of 'Juliet's' childhood she speaks of it as it relates in time to an earthquake, a shaking of the earth. 'Juliet,' this beauty, making the globe quake? Could that have been?

The Nurse also reinforces the aspect of a fragmented self, a tenet of Surrealism, as introduced by 'Juliet' in her iconic "Wherefore art thou Romeo?" musing. Three scenes after this we hear the Nurse describe Romeo: "Though his face be better than any man's, yet his leg excels all men's, and for a hand and a foot and a body, though they be not to be talked on, yet they are past compare." While Will Shakespeare intended a Pauline context for those lines, I feel he also intended to evoke the story of Osiris's dismemberment by Seth. ('Swordsmanship' with the word 'prick' indicates, however, that Romeo, unlike Osiris, has his genitals.)

The prevailing imagery evoking Isis and Osiris in "Romeo and Juliet," however, is that of the "womb of death" (V.iii.45). The imagery is present throughout the play, alluded to most famously at the close of the first act when 'Juliet' says, "If he be married, My grave is like to be my wedding bed." In the third act, after their wedding night and before Romeo departs for Mantua, 'Juliet' seem
s to see him, in her mind, as if he is in a tomb.

The most striking and explicit evocation of the Isis and Osiris story is spoken by Romeo in the fifth act as he waits in Mantua for news of 'Juliet': "If I may trust the flattering truth of sleep ..... I dreamt my lady came and found me dead/(Strange dream that gives a dead man leave to think!)/And breathed such life with kisses in my lips/That I revived and was an emperor."

The feminine reviving the fragmented self.

Many scholars over time have noted the parallels between the iconography of Horus seated on the lap of Isis and the infant Jesus seated on the lap of the Madonna. I note that just as an image of a feminine deity emerges onto the world stage in a constellation of plays from Will Shakespeare's imagination, serving a world in turmoil, I see the possibility of an image of the Madonna emerging from the fragments Salvador Dali placed so carefully on his canvases.

I cannot shake the sense that, although he had parted ways with the Surrealists years earlier, Dali could not divorce himself from the Surrealist tenet that Beauty, the wondrous, the marvelous, would indeed convulse, shake up, explode into the world. William Shakespeare envisioned it in his world. Dali envisioned it in his as well.

The fragments are there, that is certain, and we see these artists' work to guide us.

[Bibliography: Caws, Mary Ann (ed.). "Surrealism." Phaidon Publishers, Inc., Published 2010; Kinsley, David. "the Goddesses' Mirror: Visions of the Divine from East and West." Albany: SUNY Press, c. 1989; Shakespeare, William. "A Midsummer Night's Dream." New York: Washington Square Press, c. 1993; Shakespeare, William. "Romeo and Juliet." New York: Washington Square Press, c. 1992; Siegried, Tom. "Strange Matters: Undiscovered Ideas at the Frontiers of Space and Time." New York: Berkley Books, c. 2002]

[[Photos, all Barbara Butler McCoy: Top - Statue of Anubis, Atlanta, 2009; Middle - Sign outside the Folger Shakespeare Library, 2009; Bottom - Relief of "Romeo and Juliet" on the Folger Shakespeare Library, 2009]]

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