Angilbert (fl. ca. 840/50), On the Battle Which was Fought at Fontenoy

The Law of Christians is broken,
Blood by the hands of hell profusely shed like rain,
And the throat of Cerberus bellows songs of joy.

Angelbertus, Versus de Bella que fuit acta Fontaneto

Fracta est lex christianorum
Sanguinis proluvio, unde manus inferorum,
gaudet gula Cerberi.

Sunday, July 5, 2009

"Petit pan de mur jaune"--Proust, Vermeer, the Color Yellow, and the Natural Law

The French writer Marcel Proust, in his À la recherche du temps perdu, contains a well-known passage which relates to the notion of the natural moral law and the natural dispositions or tendencies hidden in man. From time to time, these are felt particularly strongly. Often, these moments are called "epiphanies" or "revelations" by those who experience them. These point to a Beyond as the source of standards by which man ought to conform his life. In this instance, Proust, drawing upon a personal experience, has one of his protagonists, the elderly writer Bergotte, visit a Dutch art exhibition. While examining the detail of Vermeer's View of Delft, the old writer falls ill and dies. The seeming innocuous element that triggers Bergotte's last-minute musings is the small piece of yellow wall, a petit pan de mur jaune.

The Death of Bergotte

by Marcel Proust

The circumstances of his death were as follows. A fairly mild attack of uraemia had led to his being ordered to rest. But, an art critic having written somewhere that in Vermeer's `View of Delft' (lent by the Gallery at The Hague for an exhibition of Dutch painting), a picture which he adored and imagined that he knew by heart, a little patch of yellow wall (which he could not remember) was so well painted that it was, if one looked at it by itself, like some priceless specimen of Chinese art, of a beauty that was sufficient in itself, Bergotte ate a few potatoes, left the house, and went to the exhibition. At the first few steps he had to climb, he was overcome by an attack of dizziness. He walked past several pictures and was struck by the aridity and pointlessness of such an artificial kind of art, which was greatly inferior to the sunshine of a windswept Venetian palazzo, or of an ordinary house by the sea. At last he came to the Vermeer which he remembered as more striking, more different from anything else he knew, but in which, thanks to the critic's article, he noticed for the first time some small figures in blue, that the sand was pink, and, finally, the precious substance of the tiny patch of yellow wall. His dizziness increased; he fixed his gaze, like a child upon a yellow butterfly that it wants to catch, on the precious little patch of wall. "That's how I ought to have written," he said. "My last books are too dry, I ought to have gone over them with a few layers of color, made my language precious in itself, like this little patch of yellow wall." Meanwhile he was not unconscious of the gravity of his condition. In a celestial pair of scales there appeared to him, weighing down one the pans, his own life, while the other contained the little patch of wall so beautifully painted in yellow. He felt that he had rashly sacrificed the former for the latter. "All the same," he said to himself, "I shouldn't like to be the headline news of this exhibition for the evening papers." He repeated to himself: "Little patch of yellow wall, with a sloping roof, little patch of yellow wall." Meanwhile he sank down on to a circular settee; whereupon he suddenly ceased to think that his life was in jeopardy and, reverting to his natural optimism, told himself: "It's nothing, merely a touch of indigestion from those potatoes, which were undercooked." A fresh attack struck him down; he rolled from the settee to the floor, as visitors and attendants came hurrying to his assistance. He was dead. Dead for ever? Who can say? Certainly, experiments in spiritualism offer us no more proof than the dogmas of religion that the soul survives death. All that we can say is that everything is arranged in this life as though we entered it carrying a burden of obligations contracted in a former life; there is no reason inherent in the conditions of life on this earth that can make us consider ourselves obliged to do good, to be kind and thoughtful, even to be polite, nor for an atheist artist to consider himself obliged to begin over again a score of times a piece of work the admiration aroused by which will matter little to his worm-eaten body, like the patch of yellow wall painted with so much skill and refinement by an artist destined to be for ever unknown and barely identified under the name Vermeer. All these obligations, which have no sanction in our present life, seem to belong to a different world, a world based on kindness, scrupulousness, self- sacrifice, a world entirely different from this one and which we leave in order to be born on this earth, before perhaps returning there to live once again beneath sway of those unknown laws which we obeyed because we bore their precepts in our hearts, not knowing whose hand had traced them there – those laws to which every profound work of the intellect brings us nearer and which are invisible only – if then! – to fools. So that the idea that Bergotte was not dead for ever is by no means improbable.

They buried him, but all through that night of mourning, in the lighted shop-windows, his books, arranged three by three, kept vigil like angels with outspread wings and seemed, for him who was no more, the symbol of his resurrection.

Un petit pan de mur jaune! a little patch of yellow wall! As Christians, we must overlook the Proustian reference to Platonic metempsychosis, as we must reject Proust's empirically-based nihilism and the decadence which infects his work as a whole. But a Catholic will spot the good within the bad, the true within the false, the Christ among the thieves. Perhaps it is best to invoke the guidance of the Catholic philosopher Gabriel Marcel on the meaning of this epiphany.

[W]hat is here strongly asserted, and what should certainly be retained, is the transcendent character (in the exact and non-theological senses of the word) of the standards to which the true man, together with the artist, recognizes that he must conform his life; but it is also the refusal, implicit at least, to be satisfied with a purely abstract set of rules, it is consequently the rehabilitation of what in the last analysis we must agree to call the Beyond. . . . [I]t seems to me admirable that the writer who has perhaps gone further than any other in micro-psychological investigation should have been able to recognize, at least in certain great moments, the existence of fixed stars in the heaven of the soul. . . .

The reflections of Proust and Marcel bear a striking similarity to those of the Indian philosopher and poet Rabindranath Tagore:
When the fruit has served its full term, drawing its juice from the branch as it dances with the wind and matures in the sun, then it finds in its core the call of the beyond and become ready for its career of a wider life.
The English Writings of Rabindranath Tagore (Atlantic Publisher, 2007), IV, 375.

All this is quite classical. The color yellow is linked with the interlaced nature of time, and of life, and of that time when life is at the end of its stages, when life is drying out, and the hope of a beyond is what begins to motivate us. The typical memento mori, or a mediation on death enjoined on us by all spiritual writers, is an effort to place us in an artificial yellow mood, as it were, where we contemplate life as if we are in the throes of death. But the specter of death is universal. So in Pseudo-Aristotle, in the treatise on colors (de Coloribus), this understanding of the color yellow makes its appearance. Leaves of trees yellow at the end, when nourishment fails and dessication follows, but before all color departs. Similarly fruits will fall off a tree and yellow because of the failure of nutrition. We ought to learn from the plants, and from their fruit.

Following the Frenchman Proust, the Argentinian Jorge Luis Borges also links the color yellow, in this case a yellow rose, to an epiphany relating to the "Beyond." These are the dying thoughts of the illustrious Giambattista Marina:

Ni aquella tarde ni la otra murió el ilustre Giambattista Marino, que las bocas unánimes de la Fama (para usar una imagen que le fue cara) proclamaron el nuevo Homero y el nuevo Dante, pero el hecho inmóvil y silencioso que entonces ocurrió fue en verdad el último de su vida. Colmado de años y de gloria, el hombre se moría en un vasto lecho español de columnas labradas. Nada cuesta imaginar a unos pasos del sereno balcón que mira al poniente y, más abajo, mármoles y laureles y un jardín que duplica sus graderías en un agua rectangular. Una mujer ha puesto en una copa una rosa amarilla; el hombre murmura los versos inevitables que a él mismo, para hablar con sinceridad, ya lo hastían un poco:

Púrpura del jardín, pompo del prado,
Gema de primavera, ojo de abril...

Entonces ocurrió la revelación. Marino vio la rosa, como Adán pudo verla en el Paraíso, y sintió que ella estaba en su eternidad y no en sus palabras y que podemos mencionar o aludir pero no expresar y que los altos y soberbios volúmenes que formaban un ángulo de la sala en la penumbra de oro no eran (como su vanidad soñó) un espejo del mundo, sino una cosa más agregada al mundo.

Esta iluminación alcanzó Marino en la víspera de su muerte, y Homero y Dante acaso la alcanzaron también.

Neither that afternoon nor the next did the illustrious Giambattista Marino die, he whom the unanimous mouths of Fame — to use an image dear to him — proclaimed as the new Homer and the new Dante. But still, the noiseless fact that took place then was in reality the last event of his life. Laden with years and with glory, he lay dying in a huge Spanish bed with carved bedposts. It is not hard to imagine a serene balcony a few steps away, facing the west, and, below, marble and laurels and a garden whose various levels are duplicated in a rectangle of water. A woman has placed in a goblet a yellow rose. The man murmurs the inevitable lines that now, to tell the truth, bore even him a little:

Purple of the garden, pomp of the meadow,
Gem of the spring, April’s eye . . .

Then the revelation occured: Marino saw the rose as Adam might have seen it in Paradise, and he thought that the rose was to be found in its own eternity and not in his words; and that we may mention or allude to a thing, but not express it; and that the tall, proud volumes casting a golden shadow in a corner were not — as his vanity had dreamed — a mirror of the world, but rather one thing more added to the world.

Marino achieved this illumination on the eve of his death, and Homer and Dante may have achieved it as well.

Through the yellow rose, Marino was brought back "to the beginning," in principio, at the creation of heaven and earth, as the yet-unfaulted Adam may have seen it. For those with eyes, or touched by grace, the entirety of the eternal law can be seen in the petal of a yellow rose! A world within a world, a world invisible superadded to the world visible. And we need not wait 'til death to see it if we open ourselves to it.

The color yellow is an intermediate color, between a vital green and the color beyond. It thus partakes in both life and death, and informs us of both life's end, its terminus ad quem, and its lasting in time, its temporality. It is a desiccating, though not dessicated, color, the color of the humours of the blood evaporating, but not yet fully evaporated, through the passage of time and heat of life. It is a color of late life, not a color of death, though it points to death's closeness. It is a color that looks both toward the past, and towards the future. Wistful, on the one hand, and either hopeful (if one hopes for a life in the time beyond) or full of despair (if one does not), on the other hand. It is a color interim, a color in flux, a Heraclitean color, and so suffers from a certain temporal ambiguity.

For Proust and for Borges, therefore, the color yellow is the color that serves to remind us of the "call of the Beyond," Plato's ἐπέκεινα τῆς οὐσίας, C. S. Lewis's "deep Magic," the Thomistic "Eternal Law," Marcel's "fixed stars in the heaven of the soul," the Hindu Dharma, or Lao Tze's Dao. Call it what you will with the lights that God has given you, it is the Word of God in the order of things. Ultimately, though you may not recognize it, though you may be ignorant of it, though you may even disbelieve it, it is the voice of the Logos, the one who became man for us, Jesus, who is our Law. Perhaps that is the wisdom behind Tertullian's observation: anima naturaliter Christiana, the soul is naturally Christian.

This is also the reason--perhaps--why Gauguin painted his yellow Christ, his Le Christ jaune, a Christ that speaks of life's shortness, and life's eternity. A Christ that beckons us to the beyond. A Christ crucified in the fields of Breton, yet a Christ crucified for all times. A Christ dead before the pious wives of Breton peasants, yet a Christ dead before all mankind. In autumn, yet for all seasons.

V. Adoramus te, Christe, et benedicimus tibi.
R. Quia per sanctam crucem tuam redemisti mundum.

"Lex Christianorum crux est sancta Christi, filii Dei vivi."
--Pseudo-Cyprian, De duobus montibus Sina et Sion

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