Spent the last couple of days working on the metaphor of standing in Dostoevsky’s novel The Idiot. A copy of Hans of Holbein’s painting of the dead Christ hanging in Rogozhin’s apartment is key to my thinking, raising questions of death and resurrection, of horizontality and verticality in discussions between several characters of the novel.
In the painting the horizontal Christ is so absolutely dead that he can’t possibly rise again. I’ll lead into the discussion with two paintings by Bosch done in the 1480’s in which Christ is taking his first and last steps (first steps with the aid of a walker, last steps hindered by sandals with nails in them),
Grünewald’s gruesome painting (1512-1516) of Christ on the cross in which the feet are so thoroughly destroyed that he can’t possibly stand again (resurrection in Greek and German means literally “to stand up”),
and Holbein’s painting (1520-1522) done after his father took him to see Grünewald’s work. I don’t know Russian but am lucky to have a friend, Gary Browning, who does, and yesterday we worked through nearly 50 places in the novel where my three translations indicated that the standing metaphor was at work, and most specifically where the Russian used the *staj or *stoj root.
The book project seemed overwhelming to me yesterday – much too much for me to learn about too many works of art and literature in too many languages. Early this morning I dreamed that I although I had a substantial manuscript, there was a critical part lacking. It had something to do with women, and when I looked through the work I found that all references to women had disappeared except for the word “girl” that still appeared in one place but was on the verge of disappearing as well. How could I hold on to that? How had I allowed so much to be lost? In the dream I fell deeper and deeper into despair even as I wrestled with possibilities, impossible choices because it was all falling apart. Then an epiphany: I could add to the manuscript, I could add anything I wanted, I had ideas about women I could add.
And I add this now, from Julia Kristeva’s essay on melancholia and Holbein’s Dead Christ:
Our eyes having been filled with such a vision of the invisible, let us look once more at the people that Holbein has created: heroes of modern times, they stand straitlaced, sober, and upright. Secretive, too: as real as can be and yet indecipherable. Not a single impulse betraying jouissance. No exalted loftiness toward the beyond. Nothing but the sober difficulty of standing here below. They simply remain upright around a void that makes them strangely lonesome. Self confident. And close.