Monday, July 6, 2020

Stately Abodes

Such astute but also such narrowly circumscribed psychological observation in the novels of Henry James… This wealth of noticing: it enlightens, of course, but—like a richly furnished Victorian drawing room—also casts a slightly oppressive spell. It imprisons the reader in the demanding self-discipline that patrician social entanglements call for: that airless clutter of words and objects, of places and ritual gestures, which conjure the protective husk of gentility into existence.

The trick is always the same: to dramatize the impermeable mystery of other selves. No matter how finely one might explore the coiled springs of personality, and articulate the psychological pattern of any given character, even one suspended in our own familiar and culturally legible social medium, something never fails to escape the noticer: characters are in some crucial measure opaque to themselves and to each other—and in the end, prove scarcely less enigmatic to the putatively omniscient narrator or, for that matter, to the reader this disembodied, urbane, elucidative voice addresses.

James never quite took people to be windowless Leibnitzian monads, but, in his conception, while the curious and the perceptive may on occasion glimpse some of the furniture within, or spy a few of the pictures hanging on the walls—and perhaps, with enough patience, even work out the whole interior configuration of the stately abodes where the soul of each new acquaintance dwells in guarded concealment—yet his intimate conviction was that at the very heart of them one would always encounter a secret room, locked off and heavily curtained. It seems that ultimate existential truths must, alas, defy expression; and, even in the event that the words could be found to give voice to such indelicate gospel, still good taste and decorum would surely require it be withheld.

William James, the famous psychologist and Henry’s older brother, was fascinated with that other word-resistant truth: the mystical experience. But whereas mysticism fails to find adequate expression because it overruns the boundaries of ordinary experience and exceeds the very capacities of language, what the younger James points to in his stories is, to the contrary, an ineffable absence—an unanswerable enigma at the center of each life.

We are all strangers sending embassies to one another across the chasm of our separateness; we struggle to decipher mysterious signs flashing from foreign shores. Not for nothing is his greatest, his most perfect, his most exemplary novel called “The Ambassadors.”

The key insight of Sigmund Freud, a contemporary of James, was his conception of the unconscious as a positive force: that it is the hidden center which actively determines the choices we make—the savage heart of darkness where the conflicts that shape us into who we are arise and play themselves out. For James however, the unconscious remained merely a kind of inaccessible backstage to the business of social performance; a negatively defined vantage point from which the uncertain, ambivalent, divided self could begin to gather itself sufficiently to desire freedom, and thereby set in motion the striving that would lead (or not) to its emancipation. James did recognise that intractable, carnally embodied factors of yearning and appetite, of fear and aversion could underlie even our most polished refinements—but unlike Freud, he preferred to let these animal depths tarry undeclared, sealed under a finely expressive but also mystifying surface of convention.

Sunday, June 28, 2020

Most Things May Never Happen

Hilda was surprised when the doorbell chimed.
She wasn’t expecting anyone,
And had never been the sort of person
One simply dropped in on.

She was a bit annoyed too,
When at that very moment, as if on cue,
Irksome like a selfish child, and as untimely,
The disconsolate kettle began to shriek
With a dull and familiar urgency —
Demanding that she, then and there,
Make haste to assuage its unbearable despair.

“Just a moment!” she called out in the usual panic,
As she scurried down the hallway to the naked,
Sun-filled kitchen, where all that remained
From a lifetime of helpless indecision
Were sparkling countertops, and one of everything,
Except for the surviving regalia,
Unloved and battle-scarred,
Of her mother-in-law’s fine bone china.

“I won’t be a minute!” she cried.
And, releasing the bolt,
It occurred to her at last,
The awful pity it was
That in her interminable endurance,
She had neglected to gather
The pieces of what, behind the door,
Might once have been — but no more.

Sunday, June 14, 2020


A friend asked me to draw his daughter's original superhero concept / portrait... I did it as a fake shôjo manga cover.

Very cultivated!
Knowledge Is Power

Saturday, May 30, 2020

Empty Rooms

Whatever happened to the people who used to live here?
Are they under the carpet?
Are they in the attic?
Are they behind the mirror or inside the walls?
Do they still hide beneath the floorboards?
Don’t they know they can come out now?
That the danger is past?
That the children can play?
That the lovers can love?
That once more fearless voices can rise above a whisper?
Has no one informed them?
And don’t they know I’m waiting?
Lord, have they forgotten the living?

Thursday, October 17, 2019


In one of my facebook art groups, I discovered the contemporary Russian painter Viktor Lyapkalo.

He paints mostly nudes: buxom women, nude, at home, perhaps with their husband or lover, also nude, hanging out at the samovar, enjoying some tea, and the warmth inside their apartment, and their easy familiarity, and their own physical presence...

The women are clearly objects of the painter's desire, but the paintings aren't at all pornographic — they are instead deliberately kitsch, wry celebrations of their physical bounty, of the intimate satisfactions of domesticity, of an uninhibited and easily carried femininity, of unproblematically satisfied sexuality. The women in the paintings often have the proportions of the small "Venus" statuettes that were probably ancient fertility talismans, and in a way this is what they must also be: representations of vital abundance, of the good things in life.

One feels that instead of women, the painter might have represented, say: a table set for a mighty feast, in a small, overheated Moscow apartment, spilling over with all of the good things that you want to eat... In fact, in one of the paintings below, you can see him making fun of his own appetites — heartily digging into a whole baked turkey... He is a painter of primal satisfactions, but seen from their sunny, civilized side. Of course, we are merely human, and mortal — but if we are lucky, we can expect to be reasonably happy and sated, for a while.

The colors are pastel, and the manner very painterly and academic: the impression is one of lightness and energy. The flesh is rendered in a kind of impressionistic realism, without masking the small blemishes and folds of fat and cellulite — but the artist's gaze isn't unflinching and imperiously possessive like Lucian Freud's for example, or morbidly fascinated and monumentalizing like Jenny Saville's; it is instead loving and whimsical and celebratory.

What the paintings most remind me of are, obviously, Anders Zorn's chubby Dalecarlian nymphs: Lyapkalo's women are unselfconsciously appetizing in the same way. But Zorn celebrates only youthful beauty — girls in their first bloom, whereas Lyapkalo celebrates all women, younger and older and skinny and fat, pregnant or barren. They are also reminiscent of Renoir's loving nudes — because of the colors and the impressionistic rendering (these ample, soft shapes; this skin shimmering with purples and blues in natural light... ), but also because of the love.

These women are all the objects of a kind of wholesome fascination: by representing them, the painter seems to be cultivating his own life force, which he replenishes with the help of these formidable tits and rumps and dignified, welcoming, elegant, generous, funny, disarming, invigorating female presences.