Friday, March 28, 2014

They Stand on the Earth and They Cast Their Own Shadows

Detail from Masaccio's painting of the Expulsion of Adam and Eve in the Brancacci Chapel

The many star-crossed lovers of yesterday's post may have come from different literary traditions, but they were all unified by the way in which suffering and desire became hopelessly and fatally tangled in their stories. These tragedies, unfolding at the intersection of pleasure and pain, presented themselves as not only believable love stories but natural ones. The sentimental romances and lyric of the late-Medieval/early-Renaissance Mediterranean make it seem hauntingly natural that the birth of love should lead to the death of lovers.
Masaccio's painting of
Adam and Eve in the
Brancacci Chapel

In grappling with what makes death and desire so inextricably linked in the literary production of this time period, I decided my research needed to go back to the beginning - all the way to the beginning - in order to ascertain the origin of this link. And by "the beginning," I mean the book of Genesis.

The story of Adam and Eve sheds a great deal of light on the connection of desire and death. As a result of their expulsion, they became mortal and died. But at this same moment death becomes their reality, they are born into their humanity and therefore sexuality. As Adam and Eve leave the garden, they experience a sudden awareness of their bodies. This awareness inspires both a tragic self-consciousness full of shame and a thrilling awakening to the possibilities of material connection with one another. In the story of Adam and Eve the origin of human death and suffering is also the origin of human sexuality.

Although it was not the love Adam and Eve had for one another that caused their suffering, as is the case in the sentimental romances, their relationship was defined by the moment in which they became fully human and began experiencing together love, suffering, and death. This confused and terrible moment of leaving Eden unites Adam and Eve (archetypes of all women and men) in both love and death forever.

Patricia Grieve, in her book Desire and Death in the Sentimental Romance, has referred to love and death as the two great mysteries of humanity and thus as necessarily occurring side-by-side in literary representation: "As the two great topics of poetry - unsolvable mysteries both - it is no surprise that [love and death] should appear with great frequency in literature."

Masaccio, the Italian painter of the 15th-century, had a profound influence on other painters of his century and on the Renaissance in general. His depiction of the Expulsion of Adam and Eve in the Brancacci Chapel eloquently narrates a scene of great suffering and great beauty, all embodied by the human form.

When renowned art historian and critic, Sister Wendy, contemplated this image, she noted how representational it was of the overarching ethos of the Renaissance. To the denizens of the Renaissance world, humanity was dignified, in spite of the suffering and grief with which it also constantly had to contend. "They stand on the earth and they cast their own shadows," Sister Wendy said, "that's what the Renaissance was about: humanity as upright, suffering but responsible."

This insight, I believe, is crucial to understanding the link between desire and death in Renaissance works of literature. The overwhelming feelings of love experienced by the protagonists of 15th-century sentimental romances were invariably accompanied by a sense of immense responsibility owed to the object of their feelings. Love allowed the protagonist to encounter the eternal for the first time - feeling love was connecting with a never-ending current of human emotion. But the precarious business of ensuring that their love was fully requited by the object of their desire endangered their experience of the "eternal" nature of love. This caused great anxiety and suffering until it seemed their only recourse was to experience eternity in the only other bodily way available: death.

To hear the rest of Sister Wendy's incredibly preceptive discussion of Masaccio's painting, watch this video from minutes 2:00 - 5:00. If you happen to have 30 minutes available, I highly recommend watching the entire episode.

Until next time - kept rustling!

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