22 August 2020

The death motif in Peter Weiss


In 1817, the painter Théodore Géricault started his study of a contemporary subject for a painting, an enterprise that he took heavily to heart and that consumed him as he started painting feverishly and convulsively, in a frenetic pace and with an obsession almost akin to madness. His subject was the remains of the shipwreck of the Medusa, a French frigate that sailed with 400 people, including more than 150 soldiers on board. A raft was built for those unable to board the lifeboats. As the days passed, the number of people on the raft dwindled little by little, until only 15 individuals survived after 13 days at open sea, and after battling hunger and sickness and the inevitable descent into anarchy and cannibalism.

Le Radeau de la Méduse was the opening set piece described in the second volume of Peter Weiss's three-part pièce de résistance. The Aesthetics of Resistance was exploring the motivations and creative process behind resistance art and its relation to Marxist thinking. Joel Scott took on the reins of translation after the death of Joachim Neugroschel, who was behind the translation of volume I published fifteen years ago.

In volume I of The Aesthetics of Resistance, we could see how Weiss viewed art as transmutation of real life situations into fixed monuments, with the viewer of art as the arbiter of meanings and radical interpretations.

In transposing an actual event to the range of art, the painters had succeeded in setting up a monument to radical instants. They had shifted experience to their own present, and we, who saw each crystallization, brought it back to life. What was shown was always different than what it had emerged from, a parable was shown, a contemplation on something in the past. Things drifting by had become something lasting, freestanding, and if it possessed any realism, that was because we were suddenly touched by it, moved.

Peter Weiss's novel was a successive series of commentaries on artworks which were reflected and contemplated upon by an inquiring protagonist as he visited museums and read novels and marveled at the personal responses evoked by works such as Kafka's The Castle or Picasso's Guernica.

The discomfort and awkwardness that the painter provoked in the critics of the time who dismissed The Raft of the Medusa was an indication that the painter's resistance was never futile. Like an investigative journalist, the French painter followed his instinct and amassed all available materials he could lay his hands on to understand the essence of his subject. This technique was mirrored by Weiss who also read the same accounts of the shipwreck and provided his own critical and Marxist reading.

But the reader who in November eighteen seventeen delved into the recently published book about the shipwreck of the Medusa could see in it how the epoch in which they lived was unfolding out of narrow-mindedness, selfishness, and avarice; he saw an empire with provincial features rising up, he saw the profiteers, and he saw their victims. The suffering of the castaways on the raft of the stranded ship had left him shaken, as it had many others; the account written by the two survivors, Savigny and Corréard, which I read in the contemporaneous German translation on the night of the twentieth of September nineteen thirty-eight and into the twenty-first, introduced him to a wealth of scenes which, after a year of drafting, would result in the constellation that materialized in his great painting.

Weiss provided political commentary as well on the colonial backdrop of the frigate's sailing. But it was the milieu of tragedy that continued to shape the subject of the painting.

Immediately after rounding Cape Finisterre in good weather with a weak northeasterly, an incident occurred that placed the journey under the sign of calamity. Watching the leaping dolphins from the quarterdeck, a scream could be heard; a cabin boy, they said, had fallen overboard and, after having clung to a dangling rope for a few moments, had been carried away in the rapid movement of the ship. With the feel for precision that the authors [Savigny and Corréard] had already displayed in their listing of the participants of the expedition, and because there was nothing further to report about the victim of the accident, they now described the rescue buoy that had been thrown out. Fastened to a hawser, cobbled together out of pieces of cork, measuring a meter in diameter and bearing a small flagstick, it was able to be sketched by Géricault. 

In describing Géricault's almost madman-like work on the painting, Weiss set out to investigate the hidden motivations of an artist or novelist to give shape to some undeniable and pandemic truth. His long unbroken paragraphs were marked by shifting viewpoints and abrupt transitions from the painter to the novel's protagonist. Between the accounts of Savigny and Corréard and the composition of The Raft of the Medusa, the novelist made a hybrid account of how art imitates life and demonstrated how art breeds art. The unsettling events that led to despair and frustration, to mutiny and cannibalism of the castaways were recounted by Weiss in relation to the emerging composition of the painting. At the same time, he was describing his own vertigo as he walked the streets of Paris contemplating the painting he had just witnessed. His mind was suddenly overtaken by the Medusa

The actual venture into the unknown began when I had reached the street overlooking the Seine. I followed the railing to the right, suffering an attack of dizziness and delirium. A pole had been torn out of the base of the raft, erected as a mast and fastened with a tow rope, the clapping of the tatters of the sail could be heard and the torque was palpable, the irreparable twisting of the raft due to an overly long, laterally protruding piece of wood. By the second day the refusal to hand over the firearms to the sailors had already proven its purpose. Inebriated, having smashed and drunk a barrel of wine, the crew went after their superiors with axes and knives in a throng around the mast, where the officers held their ground with their pistols. In this burgeoning mutiny, the painter saw the possibility of a great composition arise.

Art's gestation in the mind, its execution, and its reception were perfected within the parameters of composition beyond the fodder materials of research. After careful or haphazard research, these materials were unlocked and distilled by the death's door, a mysterious alchemy that converted the exact dimensions of a flagstick to its scaled version in a painter's sketch, and that converted the base instincts of men into an inspiration for art. For beauty is nothing but the beginning of terror, Rilke intoned, which we are still just able to endure, / and we are so awed because it serenely disdains to annihilate us.

Weiss's narrator celebrated the company of painters that he encountered in Paris—Delacroix, Courbet, Millet, Géricault. His political activity was reinforced by his desire to visit museums, that "arsenal of images". He longed to serve the Party while luxuriating in the "limitless discoveries" afforded by "painted surfaces", losing himself as he head "into the absolute freedom of the imagination".

And if to the nameless masses, who in the alleys had stacked up the stones into barricades, I added those who had entered into the life of the city with their artworks, then I was immediately thrust into a hot and bubbling mêlée that left me gasping for air. Almost all of the people who had contributed to shaping my thought had resided here; the fact that their gazes had examined the scenes I was now seeing, that they had crossed this street, placed demands upon me for a moment that were scarcely bearable, but then it encouraged me, for none of these people had managed to transcend their beginnings in an instant either, and it was the ones who were most dear to me who had left behind evidence of their efforts and hardships.

Weiss was looking back at his experience as a youth during the period of Nazism. The narrator's affinity with the masters of canvas and paint was an outlet that fueled his political orientation. The artworks he frequented in the galleries were evidence and documentation of history. They spoke to him of the past and their currency was never in doubt. Bearing witness of their turbulent times, the dead artists, not to mention the masses, were the company he was much at home with. These dead artists were once struggling youth like him. They remained steadfast and purposeful because they faced death and did not waver. They lived to produce their art, gradually and not in an instant, courageous in the face of evil, undeterred by the incessant approach of death.

The death motif in Géricault's painting that Weiss dissected in the second volume of Ästhetik de Widerstands was the same abiding concern that W. G. Sebald attributed to Peter Weiss's works on the page and on canvas. [Related post: "The Remorse of the Heart: On Memory and Cruelty in the Work of Peter Weiss" (W. G. Sebald).] However, on reading volume II, especially the opening section on Géricault's painting, one could realize how W. G. Sebald's identification and fascination with Peter Weiss's novel was not only in terms of subject and theme but of style and form as well. Weiss's and Sebald's narrators were silent spectators to an earth-shaking event, a silent catastrophe that consumed the mind and heart. At the same time, Sebald obviously borrowed his method of artistic appropriation from Weiss—just as much from Thomas Bernhard—in annotating works of art from several removes or perspectives.

Weiss, as imitated by Sebald, provided an almost dry recounting of an artwork's provenance, giving objective historical details about its composition and then providing subjective analysis of the work. He was fascinated by the painstaking process of research that a painter like Géricault undertook—reading articles and firsthand accounts about the shipwreck, interviewing survivors, studying cadavers in the morgue to get the skin color of his figures on the palette right—in order to make the full representation of a work of art as he envisioned it in all its violent impact.

He attempted to imagine what it was like, the sinking of teeth into the throat, the leg of a dead human being, and while he drew Ugolino biting into the flesh of his sons, he learned to come to terms with it, as those on the raft had done after letting out a hurried prayer. The naked figures, huddled together on the raft, found themselves in a world deformed by fever and delusion, those still living merged with the dead by consuming them. Drifting about on the plank structure, in cloud-like waters, Géricault felt the penetration of the hand into the slit breast, the grasping of the heart of the person he had hugged goodbye on the previous day. After a week, thirty remained on the raft. The saltwater had driven the skin on their feet and legs to blister and peel, their torsos were covered with contusions and sores. Often they cried and whimpered, at most twenty of them could still hold themselves upright. In the counting and calculating from one day to the next, in the continual withering away of the heap of castaways, in the depictions of the thirst, the running dry of all that was drinkable, the drooling over urine—which bore various aromas, sometimes sweetish, sometimes acrid, of thinner or thicker consistency, cooled in a small tin container—in the description of sucking up the wine ration through a quill, which prolonged the drinking, in the incessant approach of death, the burning of one hour into the next, the painter too heard the seeping of time into infinity, and from this dripping, ticking, and flowing the painting's process of creation was set in motion.

To imagine the unimaginable, to bring to life what was brutal and horrible: is there not a more profound way for an artist to dramatize personal resistance against the brutalities of existence? Is there not a more explicit way for works of art to resist the temptations of death and forgetfulness? And is there not a more drastic way to maneuver death's being superseded by life and remembrance? From the sinking of the ship to the sinking of the teeth on flesh, the novelist's shadowing of the painter's obsession showed that resistance is justified if in the act of resisting the status quo, romantic existence was shattered to give a more panoramic context to apocalyptic events.

Le Radeau de la Méduse by Théodore Géricault (Image from Musée du Louvre)

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