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Saturday, April 10, 2021

Lewton Jones' on deconstructing Plato

 

Lewton Thomas Jones

Philosophy of Literature

Dr. Smyth

 

Deconstructing Plato

 

Plato was a sophist first most and a changeling of socio-political dialect.  He tells us in The Apology that he was present in court at the trial of his mentor Socrates, he also says he was one of the friends who offered money to help Socrates.  In the Phaedo he appears that he was absent from the taking of poison by Socrates in prison due to being sick at the time.  Was this just artistic literature?  We need to dig deep to find out who Plato really was and what motivated him and understand what appears to be a very strange metamorphis concerning the stages in his life.  Xenophon mentions that Plato was in the inner Socratic circle.  Aristotle writes that as a young man Plato had been a pupil of the Heractitean philosopher Cratylus.  Plato, according to the Alexandrian chronologists, was born in 427 BC and died in 346 BC aged eighty-one.

 

Plato lived during the Peloponnesian war during the oligarchy of the “Thirty” set up by the Spartan in Athens at the end of the war.  Plato seems to have two faces.  In his dialogues to Charmides and Gridas (friends of Socrates?) he alludes that he was a close relative of the “two” oligarchs which seem to be the genesis to his extreme rules regarding Athena democracy.  Plato traveled after Socrates’ death, visiting Megara and his friend Eucleodes.  He visited Cyrene for mathematical camaraderie with Theodorus.  He went to Egypt acquiring priestly knowledge.  In Italy he mingled with the Pythagoreans.  He is even rumored to have visited the Persian Magi and other magis. This hardly sounds like the doubting philosopher who uses Socratic dialogue to show that nobody really knows anything. Plato was calculated and aware of power.

 

In the Symposium we are told philosophy is a love of wisdom (not superstition or political dogma).  It is about passion, truth, and _____ i.e., the collect of the human soul.  (A soul according to Plato is in distress with “a half formed idea” . . . is likened to the pains of childbirth, and the philosopher is presented, in his relation to his disciples, as the midwife of the spirit.  His task is not to think for other men, but to help them to bring their own thoughts as birth.”  “Philosophy is, in Plato’s eyes, ‘a way of life,’ a discipline for character no less than for understanding.”

 

*The mind of Plato

A.E. Taylor Pg. 35

1922 Constable and Co. University of Michigan Press

 

He speaks of mimesis in his Theory of Education, i.e., like is known by like. *  His theory of education is dominated by the thought that the mind itself inevitably “imitates” the character of the thing it habitually imitates.”  That said, let us see Plato as the manifestation of his ideas and their true fruition. * “Just because the aspiration after wisdom is the fundamental expression of the mind’s true nature, it cannot be followed persistently without resulting in a transfiguration of the mind’s true nature (Plato):  Its ultimate affect is to reproduce in the individual soul those very features of law, order, and rational purpose which the philosopher’s contemplation reveals as omnipresent in the world of genuine knowledge”

 

This individual soul I see is Plato’s own reflection.  It is the transference of Sophist, empirical visions towards the world outside.  In this case Greece and Athens.  It could be described as an intellectualism emotion, a passion for inner truth.  The soul for Plato has to do with his imitation of Socrates and his interrogation methodology.  Plato’s vision of morality is based on his idea that knowledge can be known by the virtuous.  The danger here of course is that those who aren’t virtuous in Plato’s world are seen as lawless and ignorant to the truth.  This changeling imitator of metaphysics is Plato who doesn’t see science as a possibility without knowing the “character of things.”  This is accomplished by dogma which eventually is the world Plato logically assumes is necessary.  Plato sees mimesis as everyday “opinions” a lot of dissonant and changing beliefs in contradiction with themselves. 

 

Science, as we know, has fixed, consistent truths, absolute, grouped and joined by logic and necessity.  Deduced from true principles.  To accommodate this need for science, Plato writes his “Theory of Ideas.”  He is echoing two premises.  (1) Heracliteansism and Socrates.  The flux and motion of things and the universality of truth.  We basically just imitate Plato’s supra-physical world in our everyday life activity.  We become changelings like Plato, thereby making sure he is not alone in the world and in fact the mind-god of our collective consciousness. 

 

It is Plato who tells us what we need to know about why we are here-this smacks of Stalinism.  Stalin’s biggest achievement in control was to use philosophy to convince people they need not look outside society or control.  The fixed power is there to be imitated as we actively learn to obey it and grow to like it.  We, as misguided thinkers in Plato’s view, are to strive to understand exact ideas even if we are really relegated to create approximate and imperfect resemblances of Plato’s world of ideas.  A.E. Taylor writes – Science is assuredly something more than true opinion; it deals with things which cannot be perceived by the senses, but only conceived by thought.”

 

This rationality and its sense of external logic appealed to Plato because now ideas do exist.  Literature, poetry, and art, are just imitators of this purity.  Plato, we can guess, wasn’t good enough at comedy, satire, and tragedy to write literature or poetry so it must exist before it creates something.  This consistency is not a consistency for Plato.   Venus DeMilo would be a copy of beauty to Plato who saw beauty as something identified from an idea or distal form just as with virtue.  In Platonic language a thing or person who is beautiful may become unbeautiful by not participating with beauty which in itself, according to Plato, never begins or stops.  The perfect triangle world of Plato puts man as just man itself.  Plato, as we know, uses his mind to exalt ideas, yet he is imitating the logic of his predecessors, i.e., the sophists, the pythorgeans, the logicians, etc.  He simply replaced dialogue with a stoic objective quality control.  This thinking becomes a political idea.  Creativity is out and obedience is in.

 

Pg. 154 Plato: To Totalitarian or Democrat

Thomas Landon Thorson

1963 Prentice-Hall, Inc.

Englewood Cliffs, NJ

 

“The most striking difference between classical political philosophy and present-day political science is that the latter is no longer concerned at all with what was the guiding question for the former:  The question of the best political order.  On the other hand, modern political science is greatly preoccupied with a type question that was of much less importance to classical political philosophy: questions concerning method.

 

Greek semantics via Plato created the need for method.  By imitating Plato’s language of reflective perfection, the Western world has become a system of political consciousness operating in a speculative language of an assumed virtuous priori.  This is our manifest destiny it would seem.  Anything that just describes the world such as poetry or literature is unfunctional because it is not ruled by political functionality.

 

Plato wanted philosophers to control the policies.  In his letter VII Plato writes “and so I was forced to extol true philosophy and to declare that through it alone can real justice both for the state and for the individual be discovered and enforced.  Mankind (I said) will find no cessation from evil until either the real philosophers gain political control or else the politicians become by some miracle real philosophers.”1

 

Plato had a contempt for the working population R.H.S. Crossman writes* (pg19).  “It is clear that the shortcomings of the antidemocratic revolution were the first great disappointment of Plato’s life.  Now he realized that ‘gentleman’ could behave worse than the demagogues of the proletariat.”  (Eros and the party at the Symposium attest to this.)  Crossman goes on to say “this did not alter Plato’s profound contempt for the working population.  Plato remained an aristocrat, convinced that the peasant, the craftsman, and the shopkeeper were incapable of political responsibility.  Government was the prerequisite of the gentry, who did not need to earn a living and could therefore devote their lives to the responsibilities of war and politics.  Plato had a special word, banausic, to express his contempt for their menial occupations.” (pg 19)

 

We can see this is imitated today by the “experts” hired by the rich to explain to us what is going on in the “real” world.  Western civilization still imitates much of Plato’s ideas, politically, culturally, and scientifically today.  The new Realists of 1912 made a futile attempt to stop this madness when they proclaimed “the independence of what is known from the knower.”  Their first polemic was that idealists (Plato would be one) made illicit use of the fact of over egocentric predicament to argue fallaciously from the tautology that everything that is known is known to the conclusion that everything that is – is known.  Of course the dye had been cast on Western consciousness so that thinking like this was considered illusionary, etc.  Plato would agree, I am sure. 

 

Aristotle said of mimesis – that art imitates nature thereby one actions of the character, brings out the universal, whereas Plato had a low opinion of most art forms because of their imitative nature; removing them from as he said from “truth,” or the “real” thing.  In the Republic Book 3, 395 Plato also warns that bad qualities may rub off on the artist who imitates a bad character.  He goes on to show the contrast between mimesis and diegesis (narrative).  His point is to show there is more of a distance between the storyteller and the story told.  This would apply to Plato’s use of showing us who Socrates was as well.  Once again we can see the nature of Plato.  He does not practice what he preaches.  It would seem he has a sociopathic distance from whoever he speaks to.

 

Plato Unmasked

Keith Quincy

Eastern University Press © 2003 Keith Quincy

 

In the Philosopher’s Education, Chapter 10, in the dialectic Socrates says to Glaucan: Mathematics, geometry, and other studies have a defect.  They begin with certain unexamined assumptions, employ them as axioms, and make deductions from them, creating a vast tissue of deductive reasoning, all of it consistent and logically water tight, but resting on unexamined ideas.  It’s the function of the dialectic to examine those assumptions, and many others.  Asking why and how they can be shown true by demonstrating that they are deducible from higher order ideas or forms, ascending one scale until the one idea, that of the good, is reached, from which all other ideas may be deduced.  Glaucan responds: A noble undertaking.  Socrates responds: not everyone can manage it.  We have to weed out the unfit.”

 

The question I would ask is who is saying this, Plato or Socrates?  Who is the unfit?  Where is the good to imitate?  It is a changeling we call Plato wearing a thousand masks and propelling humanity into a false consciousness that remembers nothing of history but continually repeats its mistakes.  What is the philosophy of literature?  You are reading it, but my imitation is unique because I did not know Plato or Socrates.  Just like Aristophanes, I will have to create comedy in this linguistic tragedy.

 

Kierkegaard

Translated by Lee M. Hollander

University of Texas Press 1923 – 1960

 

Kierkegaard says of Plato ____ He sees love as comical like Aristophanes.  It is a category of contradictions.  Kierkegaard says “what I shall demonstrate now is that love is comical. (pg 54) By love I mean the relation between man and women.  I am not thinking of Eros in the Greek sense which has been extolled so beautifully by Plato, who, by the way is so far from considering (Symposium Ch 9) the love of woman that he mentions it only in passing, holding it inferior to the love of youths. (12).  I say love is comical to a third person.

 

It is Plato’s dietetic nature that he tries to put Eros into the pure forms such as a Platonic love.  Kierkegaard goes on – (Pg 55) (Symposium, Ch 29) if one should answer Plato about love, i.e., that one is to love what is good, one has in taking this single step exceeded the bound of the erotic.  The answer may be offered, perhaps that one is to love what is beautiful.

 

Plato’s absolute virtue in idea or form needs laws to protect it because it merely invitation and subject to Eros and logos which he acknowledges as the ultimate interactions to virtue and truth.

 

Kierkegaard (Pg 55) from the (Symposium Ch 24) continues “again if I should refer the erotic element to the bisection of which Aristophanes tells us (15) when he says that the gods cut a man into two parts, as one slit flounders, and that these parts thus separated sought one another.  There is no reason for the thought to stop at this point.  The gods might divide man into three parts.  Kierkegaard concludes, “as I said that love renders a person ridiculous if not in the eyes of others then certainly in the eyes of the gods”

 

Hereby we have the symposium with Socrates looking like a babbling clown cajoling about Eros, according to Plato.  The philosopher as a two-headed Janus clown, one profound, one subject to the whim of a flesh party.  Where is Plato’s ideal goodness?  Do poets represent the illogical that permeates Plato and Socrates in these dialogues?

 

AC. Grayling

What is Good

Weidenfeld & Nicolson © 2003 London

Page 106

 

“Among many Christian Renaissance thinkers the ethics of Plato seemed far more congenial than those of Aristotle.  Two aspects of his views made him attractive.  One was his claim that the form of the good is the highest being, and that the supreme good consists of the contemplation with it.  Naturally the Rennaissance admirers of Plato such as Marsilio Ficino identified the form of the good with God.  

 

God, for Plato, was the laws he imitated or wrote.  He could not empirically operate as a true philosopher without reaching for a dogmatic proof.  The poets were a reflection of his own imitation of truth.  At least they knew a narrative was an expression of one’s self.  Plato, like Freud, felt that he spoke for the entire mind of the universe.  The Protestant religion reflected Plato’s goodness as A.C. Grayling writes – “By one getting of money, by honest endeavor in trade and commerce, a respectable sign of God’s favor, even if such a life was not quite the best that could be envisioned.  Plato’s semantics became the Western irony, no longer just philosophy but religion itself.  A great imitated imitation of abstract tit for tat.”

 

Aristotle sought metaphysics and common knowledge, breaking away from Plato’s elite revelations toward “fixing” other’s minds.  “A.C Grayling writes, “Another point of disagreement (with Aristotle) was Aristotle’s claim that since reason is the highest of man’s qualities one best life for man is the life of contemplation.  “Let’s get back to Homer (presocratic).”

 

Homer was an influence on Plato – Homer who by saying Okeanos begetter of god’s and mother teth’s declared all things be the offspring of flux and motion.  Plato didn’t think Homer is the forerunner – Hericlitus was aware of this when he said “You can’t step in the same river twice.”  Plato moved away from the kinetic life to present static narratives that presupposed a priori that only he and Socrates understood.  Aristophanes was able to breathe life into Socrates by showing the humor of the man himself versus the icon of the cave and sage indirect.

 

The Presocratic Philsophers

B.G.S. Kirk

Cambridge University Press © 1957; 1983

Page 278

 

“All things are full of gods Aristotle says in the deanina about Thales vision of the whole world as somehow alive and animated.”  I submit that poetry is what describes this animation.  Shelly called this embellishing the mute phenomena which can only truly exist when a poet sees it.  The poet creates its metaphorical presence.  Just as Shelley also described the soul within a soul in his poem “Epicpsychideon.”

 

The Sophisi

Pg 328

 

“Aristotle in the Sophist says that Empedocles was the first to discover rhetoric and Zeno the first dialectic. – By didactic Aristotle has in mind the sort of philosophical interrogation pursued by Socrates in the early Platonic dialogues.”

 

The question elicits from his interlocutor assent to an endox on a belief in good standing accepted by everyone or most people or the experts, which he then forces him to abandon whether by reducing it to absurdity or by showing that it conflicts with the beliefs the interlocutor holds.  If one suspects the motives or the tactics of the questioner one will be inclined to change him with being a mere controversialist (antilogikos) which is what Plato had in mind when he describes Zeon in the Phaedrus.  Do we not then ____ this eleatic Palmedis argues with such skill _____ the same things appear to his listeners to be both like and unlike, both none and many, both at rest and in motion?

 

Plato can’t find logos in this ebb and flow of human relation.  He is isolated from the human stage itself and the person he writes Socrates about was in the middle of human folly it seems all the time.   Plato has the same paralysis James Joyce said of the Irish, the inability to free yourself from that which imprisons you.

 

Jacques Derrida of Grammatology

Translated by Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak

John’s Hopkins University Press

 

Jacques Derrida writes, “Knowledge is not a systematic tracking down a truth that is hidden but may not be found.  It is rather the field of free play, that is to say, a field of infinite substitutions, the closure of a finite ensemble.” (Ed 423, SE 260) (Pg 220 Portrait of an Artist) (Pg xix Translators preface).  James Joyce wrote, “I shall be a priest of eternal imagination transmuting the daily bread of life into everlasting life, I will use my wit, my cunning and the smithy of my soul to create the uncreated conscious of my race.”  Unlike Plato, Joyce knew that experience had a cognition that ceded Platonic dialogue for it called into being a life with presence and consciousness.

 

Experience for Jacques Derrida he says (Pg xvii) “as for the concept of experience, it is most unwieldy here.  Like all the notions I am using, it belongs to the history of metaphysics and we can only use it under erasure.  “Experience” has always designated the relationship with presence, whether that relationship had the form of consciousness or not. (Eros; Plato’s perfect love comes to mind for me here) – he goes on – yet we must by means of the sort of contortion and contention that discourse is obliged to undergo, exhaust the resources of the concept of experience before attaining and in order to attain by deconstructing its ultimate foundation.  It is the only way to escape “empiricism” and the naive critiques of experience at the same time (89.60). Pg 127. 

 

Regarding forms or ideas that Plato was in the wise to – Levis Strauss writes the symbol had been borrowed but the reality remained quite foreign to them.  Even the borrowing had a sociological rather than intellectual object.  For it was not a question of knowing specific things or understanding them or keeping them in mind, but merely of enhancing the prestige and authority of one individual or one function at the expense of the rest of the party.  Plato’s idea that poets were just imitators and philosophers were the real thing is suspect when we think of Socrates and Plato in a kind of cult of fame announcing all phenomena which they discovered first or claim to have.  When we deconstruct Plato we see that he is an imitator just like the poets he condemns as superficial agents of truth.  (Pg 48 & 49)

 

Friedrich Nietzsche

J.P. Stern

Frank Kermode

Penguin Books

N.Y. © 1978

 

Nietzsche writes about the birth of tragedy as a duality of the Dionysian (Eros) and the Apollonian (order).  He feels that “when the Dionysian element rules, ecstasy and inchoateness thereafter:  When the Apollonian predominates the tragic feeling recedes.  Plato at least, according to Aristophanes was justifying Socrates as a Dionysian player who not only played at Eros but rejected the Apollonian order with laws.  He deconstructed the Socratic world of thought and made it into a city where laws controlled unvirtuous people.   This need for balance was the swing in Greek culture Nietzsche talks about when he says “The balance is achieved for the first time in Aescylus, and then again in Sophocles: by the time Euripides and Socrates come to dominate the literacy scene, the Dionysian element is authenticated and at last all but completely suppressed.”  Enter Plato who creates a Socrates he merely writes about and imitates as a passing of the torch of knowledge as Nietzche states, “in the Bacchal the thwarted god takes his revenge.  Nietzche goes on, “the decline of Greek tragedy begins when creative ecstasy is suppressed and has to give way to cold calculation.  We see Plato as one comic tragic imitation of what was once Greek.”

 

Nietzche goes on to say, “now the old myths ceased to be experienced as parts of an ecstatic religious ritual and become objects of rational analysis; the gods and their stories come to be judged according to the prosy maxims of reasoned justice.”  In order for Plato to conquer poetry, comedy, tragedy, and literature he needed to claim philosophy as the true knowledge.  He then created a world that fit his imitation of a Greek city.  It was now a Utopia for the guardians of his ideas of what a city should be. Socrates is no longer doubting for us,instead we have an artificial philosopher who modifies information to fit the needs of his own logos.

 

Nietzsche feels that art is one of “the ruses of life; tragedy has always had a vital function: to protect men from a full knowledge of the life destroying doom that surrounds them.”  Nietzsche sees “Euripides and Socrates ugly and artistically unified.”  The Platonic dialogue to him is an “effective parody which in their superficiality and optimism no longer acknowledge the reality of the abyss of suffering.

 

In conclusion, Plato needs to be deconstructed to allow life to breath.  He is an obstacle to discovery.  His is the knowledge of stagnation and imitation.  He is the seed of Western tyranny and state control.  He lets mind control replace speculation.  Derrida sums it up very well. (Pg 139)

 

Jacques Derrida

Dissemination

University of Chicago Press © 1981

 

“Undecidedly, mimesis is akin to the pharmakon.  (Plato as metaphor)  no ‘logic,’ no ‘dialectic,’ can consume its reserve even though each must endlessly draw on it and seek reassurance on it.  “As it happens, the techniques of imitation, along with the simulacrum has always been in Plato’s eyes manifest by magical, thawmaturgical.”

 

We must deconstruct Plato to protect us from the past so we don’t imitate it for the present or for the future.  Plato is just a name; a word; a self-proclaimed man of importance.  The city is still the city of individuals free to think.  Let the self be the self.  Plato was an idea, a formed a triangle of imprisonment . . . a much to do about nothing . . . a spectre of double vision announcing its presence through writing and ideas.  Anointing us in repetitive idioms that are mere echoes of the original moment.

Thursday, March 25, 2021

Lew Jones

 

Lewton Thomas Jones

19th Century American Poetry

Graduate Paper

 

Edgar Allen and Poe and Emily Dickinson wrote poems that explored the idea of death. Two poems that I will discuss by these two poets are “Because I could Not Stop for Death” by Dickinson and “Spirits of the Dead” by Poe. I will compare these two poems and hopefully give insights in how these two poets used language in poetic form to try and understand death. The poems will be examined line by line and commented upon.

Line one in the poem “Because I Could not Stop for Death” begins;

                  “Because I could not stop for Death, He kindly stopped for me.”

Poe’s poem “Spirits of the Dead” begins with;

                   “Thy soul shall find itself alone ‘Mid dark thoughts of the grey tomb-stone.”

 The first line in Dickinson is a statement that appears first person. Death is personified as a courteous being that treats her kindly even though she would not stop for it. The word “because” implies that she the speaker is in need of explaining why she could not stop for death. Poe’s first line implies second person being addressed --probably the reader. He writes that the soul shall find itself alone. The word soul implies a spiritual difference to the body. (Biblically) The soul is alone and has “deep thoughts of the grey tombstone” which assumes that the soul can contemplate its own grave and is alone.

The second lines of Dickinson’s poem continue;

                    “The carriage held but just our selves And Immortality.”

 She creates a view of a carriage which might be a coffin or at least a metaphor for some transfer to somewhere. She uses the word “held” which implies a secured state of being as well as “ourselves” which seems to mean all people. Dickinson separates death from immortality, however, and it appears to be a passenger. Poe’s second lines in “spirits of the Dead” feel lonelier than Dickinson’s;

                    “Not one, of all the crowd, to pry Into thine hour of secrecy.”

Poe suggests that the soul is not privy to any clues of death as it is in a crowd of other spirits who don’t have any knowledge of your  death ,which is a secret.

The third line (2nd Stanza) in Dickinson’s poem continues;

“We slowly drove, he knew no haste, And I had put away My labor and my leisure too,  For  his   civility.”

The carriage on this journey is in no hurry-- in fact there is no indication of no real urgency (“no haste”). We assume that death is the driver and is a civil one, -- as the voice in the poem relaxes from earthly duties such as work into more leisurely  things in life. Death is polite for Dickinson so far in the poem. Poe’s next lines - (2nd stanza), seems to suggest a certain empathy from the other side as well;

                   “Be silent in that solitude, which is not loneliness.”

To be silent sounds like a suggestion to be patient or submissive to the soul’s inevitable journey. The difference between Poe and Dickinson is that Poe’s death so far is invisible and dreamlike whereas Dickinson’s seems to represent real objects and real people we are more likely to encounter in our waking reality. Poe suggests some ambiguous kindness in that the solitude presented is not lonely. The next lines explain why;

               “For then The Spirits of the dead, who stood In life before thee,

                are again In death around thee, and their will Shall overshadow thee; be still.”

 When Dickinson refers to others as ourselves, Poe in these lines sees the other participants in this realm as spirits who stood before him that could be people who are no longer living or other strangers. The uniting of the dead surrounds the lone soul in Poe’s lines with a will or power to put darkness around you (“overshadow) which tells you to be still. Even when Poe suggests a natural connection with other spirits, his images of death are more ominous than Dickinson’s so far in these two poems.

In stanza three Dickinson writes;

                “We passed the school, where children strove At recess, in the ring;

                 We passed the fields of grazing grain, We passed the setting sun.”

 Dickinson appears to be looking at scenes of her life, her childhood in regard to recess and being in a ring. The next line could be about fruition or maturity such as the harvest of fields of wheat or grain. The word “passing” suggests dying and is used in that way when someone dies. The sun setting is the end of the day or the end of the speaker’s life . In comparison, Poe’s first lines in the third stanza the poet say;

                  “The night, though clear, shall frown, And the stars shall not look down

                    From their high thrones in heaven.” 

Poe’s ‘place in time’ is dark like the night, and even though you can then imagine the night ‘frowning’ as if in an unfriendly look to the lonely soul. This soul has come into a void which has no stars unlike the night which was heavenly before death with stars shining down. Poe is describing death at this point of the poem as an unsure deliverance to a strange place, whereby Dickinson has no fear in her visions thus far.

The fourth stanza of Dickinson continues the poem’s direction;

                            Or rather he passed us; The dews grew quivering and chill,

                             For only gossamer my gown, My tippet only tulle.”

Dickinson now suggests a discomfort that is she is chilly because she is not warmly dressed. Her garments are more appropriate for a wedding which could mean a new beginning rather than a funeral or ending. She seems to welcome death as her new life. The ’he’ in her line could be a male suitor who controls the action in her passing or death in accordance with God. Poe using the word heaven suggests the same sentiment. Both poets have a sense of providence. Poe’s next lines from stanza four confer with this notion;

                     “With light like hope to mortals given”

He then darkens this providence with the next lines;

                    “ But their red orbs, without beam,

                      To thy weariness shall seem

                      As a burning and a fever Which would cling to thee for ever.”

 The red orbs (stars) could be the eyes of the dead /spirits around the soul which are now very tired (rather than chilled like Dickinson) rather hot like a burning (Hell?) “like a fever” which grabs onto the soul forever. Poe might be describing death or the consequences which wait for the soul after death. Poe’s death feels much more dramatic and solitary than Dickinson’s at this point in the two poems.

The fifth stanza of Dickinson’s poem on death says;

                  “We paused before a house that seemed A swelling of the ground;

                                     The roof was scarcely visible, The cornice but a mound.”

Dickinson seems comfortable with her death in these lines about where her new house or grave is to be.  She has personified death and cannot stop him. It appears to be a sort of house that is seen from a distance in relation to her unexpected death. She is unprepared and getting closer which is a little frightening. The roof could be the grave stone over the mound of earth. Dickinson however is much more stoic than Poe and less dramatic. She accepts her plot in the earth. Poe seems to be a wandering spirit in an unknown place.

The fifth stanza in Poe’s poem on death concludes;

                           “Now are thoughts though shalt not banish,

                            Now are visions ne’er to vanish; from thy spirit shall they pass No more,

                            like dew-drop from the grass.”

The word “now” is in present tense, implying that the place is present, as well. The thoughts of the soul continue forever as well as one’s visions-- which for Poe were not very forgiving considering his tortured life. The things which you bring from this life into the next are permanent for Poe.  Unlike Dickinson’s final death home, his version of death was one of no rest. Poe’s imagery, such as in the’ sparkle of dew on the grass’ (stars) is poetic, and its poetic ‘beauty’ could also follow the soul into the next world, although he continues with his ominous settings.

The last stanza in Dickinson’s poem “Because I Could not Stop for Death concludes with;

                       “Since then ‘tis centuries, and yet each Feels shorter than the day

                        I first surmised the horses’ heads Were toward eternity.”

Time stands still in Dickinson’s death as centuries pass and she sleeps away.  She also remembers the journey to death in the carriage with the horses’ heads as a projection to where her soul was going which was eternity. She seems to say that eternity is inevitable and defies explaining anymore in earthly terms anymore  than the narrative description of directions that a horse in this corporal life might take. When Dickinson uses the word “surmised” we assume that a material brain was postulated something. If Dickinson is already dead then the interior mind talking is really her soul which is really living in her poem and its words. It is possible that she wrote the poem in speculation it would be read after her death as a musing on where she will be. Her overall theme seems to be that death is not to be feared which is quite different than Poe’s. Dickinson sees death as a natural part of the endless cycle of nature. Her personality and religious beliefs may also reflect her intentions in the poem. Dickinson was a spinster-- reclusive and introspective --and tended to write about her isolation and death, but she was also a Bible reader and a Christian and that could explain her optimism about dying and seeing death as a friend.

 

The last stanza of Poe’s Poem “Spirits of the Dead” suggests a different view;

                               “The breeze, the breath of god, is still, And the mist upon the hill

                                Shadowy, shadowy, yet unbroken, Is a symbol and a token.

                                How it hangs upon the trees, A mystery of mysteries.”

 Once again we see Poe’s writing style as much more dramatic than narrative as Dickinson’s, as well as his vision of death. The description of the place of death for Poe is spooky and feels gothic but he refers to God having a breath which presumes a life force like the Holy Spirit which is Christian in context. Poe’s eternity is still—and, unlike Dickinson, he was concerned with ,though natural, yet somewhat uncomfortable visuals surrounding the actual grave, which embellishes the place where the dead are in waiting. The “token” could be a symbol for the living to witness. Poe’s is shadowy and with the repetition it underscores this gloomy place where trees stand above graves. Poe used words for effect more than meaning so it is the poem itself that holds the meaning.

The last line “A mysteries of mysteries” is different than Dickinson’s conclusion which states that she understands how time works and how she will feel in her resting place. Poe compares the hell and heaven in this life as counterpoints to what is to become and concludes that both are synonymous in meaning: “High thrones in the heaven’ and “red orbs, without beam. “ The rest is imagery for Poe, who unlike Dickinson, kept the poem independent of the didactic and the philosophic truth construct. He felt poems should be short and build to a high point and then end. Dickinson wrote her poems almost biographically. Death could be the ultimate drama for Poe in his poem while Dickinson might have just liked the word play using death as a gentleman coming to see her to take a ride in his carriage and possibly marry.

 Dickinson seems confessional in her view of death while Poe is entertaining the reader with his vision of it because for Poe only the spirits of the dead know the answers where as Dickinson seems convinced that she can see through the veil of life’s question via her academic intellectualism and poetic use of language. For Dickinson the contemplation regarding death in the poem “Because I could not Stop for Death” is an experience she is looking back on; “tis centuries”. Poe was pursuing death simply by his lifestyle. His poetry was a livelihood as well as an art form. Dickinson used poetry to imitate life and was free to write without it needing to provide her sole  financial source of survival. Poe was in the public eye and his internal thoughts needed to be at least entertaining. Dickinson had the interior privilege due to a secure life at Amherst to muse upon life at a distance and keep her sensitivity in a drawer. Death was a visitor for Emily but for Poe it was a continuation of his fight with God and the suffering and fear of loss. Emily suffered from the death of loved ones as well, but she was not in the trenches of everyday life in so much the way Poe was.

In conclusion, it is possible within these poems to get a glimpse of how people like Poe and Dickinson viewed death. In the two poems discussed, we can surmise that they both were poetically preoccupied with death personally and they expressed it so in their work. Death was a suitor in a carriage for Dickinson and for Poe it was a graveyard dark with spirits. In both poems death is present in the here and after. They are interior poems, describing death in an abstract way using nature and human made symbols as their metaphors.

  In a letter Dickinson wrote; “A single thread joins mighty to meek. Death, Exhilaration and the Perfidies of the Universe make companions of housewife and statesman. Thought and Soul-Companions share a solitary room. It’s a Window a mirror, its door defy the key no gate secure it’s garden except Eternity.” (August 1, On the Death of Abraham Lincoln) Bauldelaire said of Poe” It is this admirable, this immortal instinct of the beautiful which makes us consider the earth and its spectacles as a revelation as something in correspondence with heaven. The insatiable thirst for everything that lies beyond, and that life reveals is the most living proof of our immortality. It is at the same time by poetry and through poetry, by and through music that the soul glimpses the splendors of the tomb. Edgar Allen Poe was also absorbed by the idea of unity-a fond dream.” (Bauldelaire on Poe 1952 Pg 140-142))

 

 

 

Wednesday, November 25, 2020

Lew Jones' paper

Lewton Thomas Jones

19th Century European Art

Lee Stewart

Graduate Paper      May 22,2011

 

 

                                               The Sower—From Millet to Van Gogh

            Vincent Van Gogh had a childlike respect for the work of Jean Francais Millet, particularly the painting The Sower. Van Gogh’s own poverty and Dutch religious background helped him identify with farming subjects as in the metaphorical image of a sower. Specifically, he identified with Millet’s striding boy intent on doing God’s harvesting in his painting, The Sower. The influence Millet had upon Van Gogh that can’t be ignored. The great compassion Millet felt for peasants working the soil is the main connection that Millet and Van Gogh shared. Both painters came from religious working class backgrounds but their beliefs in artistic expression were very different. Millet chose to paint in the style of the Barbizon school while Van Gogh was largely self-taught with some training in the Netherlands. It was in Paris where Van Gogh met the Impressionists who influenced him to go beyond his Dutch background and his mimetic connection to Millet. However, it is the radical transformation evidenced in Van Gogh’s version of The Sower that clearly defines their differences. Although Van Gogh copied Millet’s The Sower several times, it was in sunny Arles that Van Gogh’s theories about color and expression truly manifested a shift in consciousness.

            The Biblical Sower in Matthew was an influence to both artists with its religious identification with peasantry—by virtue of their position socially they appear virtuous and godly in their connection to the fertility of the Earth. It is here that they shared a commonality. The parable of the sower is a parable of Jesus’ found in the Bible. In Matthew 13:1-23,Jesus tells of sowing the earth: “Some seed fell by the wayside; and the birds devoured them, Some fell on stony places, where they did not have much earth, But when the sun came up they were scorched, and because they had no root they withered away. And some fell among thorns, and the thorns sprang up and choked them. But others fell on good ground and yielded a crop, some a hundredfold, some sixty, some thirty. He who has ears let them hear.” This is allegorically infusing the connection that man has with God through the fertility of spiritual growth.

             Millet celebrated the movement of raw life visually transforming the fields into one moment of man communing with nature. Millet gave nobility to the peasant. Van Gogh was fond of Millet mostly because of his strong symbolism showing man in the midst of nature and his task of bringing life to the soil. Millet is famous for saying, ”I was born a peasant and shall die a peasant.” Van Gogh consistently identified with the peasant class and similar to Millay ascribed to the notion that laborers and farmers were noble and godly. In 1885 Van Gogh wrote to his brother Theo, “Millet is father Millet, counselor and mentor in everything for young artists.” Van Gogh’s real father was an evangelistic preacher who never supported Van Gogh’s art and one of the catalysts for Van Gogh’s liberation of color, which can be seen in his 1888 The Sower.

             There is a mimetic message that both Millet and Van Gogh adhered to, and though both were inspired, they painted the parable very differently. Van Gogh loved Millet and copied The Sower and many other paintings by Millet. There was a primary difference between them, which was Van Gogh’s radiant individualism, and his break from the academic figurative rules, which, unlike Millet, he no longer continued to follow.  The symbolic focus on a solitary figure without high social ranking was a driving force in both of the paintings. Millet painted The Sower in 1850 while Van Gogh painted his in 1888. Millet was a Realist painter whereas Van Gogh was an Expressionist with a connection to Impressionism. Van Gogh used Millet’s metaphor of The Sower as a catalyst for a new vision in painting where color triumphs over form and message). ”Ultimately, it was the sun of Arles that for Van Gogh was a life-giving force. The Sower, a work executed in the blaze of the Arles summer, reflects a quantum leap in artistic self-revelation.  Its theme was a hallowed one in nineteenth-century painting-- the cyclical motif of harvesting and reseeding the earth, and, the sower, himself. It is a figure transformed by Van Gogh from copying one of his idols, Millet.” (Rosenblum-Janson Pg.429)

            Van Gogh’s painting of The Sower depends entirely on colors/perspective. It was painted in Provence, where he had gone in search of stronger light and more vivid colors. He saw the south as an unspoiled paradise. The canvas is dominated by two complimentary tints: the violet of the field and man and the yellow of the sky and corn. The sower’s clothes have the same tones as the nature that surrounds him. He is identifiable as nature without being separate or as a counterpoint... It is all God. The figure in Van Gogh is not centralized--instead, the sun is central, as if the bright, yellow eye of God (yellow is the most visible of all colors, and the color of Van Gogh’s house in Arles). The dazzling array of sunlight and the grass are the brushstrokes of a new creator-Van Gogh, himself. “The sun is a symbol of beneficial life that permeates everything the eye sees”. (Argan Pg. 94 )  In Arles, Van Gogh further pursued his stated belief that “color expresses something in itself.” (Wallace, Robert Pg. 102 ). Millet’s The Sower is drab in contrast and was railed by the critics as being violent and brutal. It is a vision of a proud, striding peasant in an arduous work pose. There is no grand light or vegetation. It is as barren as the parable in the bible. It is a story with a narrative of truth and little more. Van Gogh’s The Sower is, on the other hand, exuberant in artistic revelation and transcends the figurative. The reason for this departure from his traditional Dutch artistic sensibilities (He admired Rembrandt’s portraits of the poor, and this may account for the darkness of his Dutch years palette (i.e., The Potato Eaters) began when Van Gogh went to Paris and began to socialize with members of the art community such as Gauguin, Pissarro, Seurat and Toulouse-Lautrec.

            Van Gogh’s The Sower was completed in 1888. Millet died in 1875, Van Gogh’s well-appreciated “art father figure” was no longer there, and after over twenty copies of Millay’s work Vincent was now his own man. Van Gogh’s electric and mise-en-scene vision of The Sower is different that Millet’s rigid, striding hero placed in a natural setting. Van Gogh’s The Sower is subsumed in color radiating chromatically in an earth world engaging him. “The Sower pits the powerful violet of a freshly plowed field against the bright yellows of standing wheat and a sun-filled sky. The sower himself seems a bridge between these strong colors; his body blends with the field while his eyes are at the level of the yellow horizon. The short, almost harsh brush strokes heighten the tensions created by the colors.” (Wallace PG. 102)

            Van Gogh’s intentions and ideas in painting a copy of Millet’s The Sower can be best understood and interpreted in his revealing letters to his brother and confidante, Theo. The difference in the two ‘Sowers’ is very distinct. Although Van Gogh praises Millet as a basis for sound poetry; ”Ce qui ne passe pas dans ce qui passé” (it exists) Van Gogh writes to Theo “And what Michelangelo said in a splendid metaphor, I think Millet has said without metaphor, and Millet can perhaps teach us to see, and get “a faith.” If I do better work later on, I certainly shall not work differently than now, I mean it will be the same apple, though riper.” (Roskill- pg.223 ) The Sower that Van Gogh painted is a riper apple than Millet and it blossoms into an entire new direction for painting. The catalyst for The Sower, while biblical, is Van Gogh’s response to Millet and the random fractal impulses that emerged from Van Gogh’s hand. In his letter to Theo Van Gogh explains this seemingly randomness; I must warn you that everyone will think I work too fast. Don’t you believe a word of it. Is it not emotion, the sincerity one’s feeling for nature that drives us?” (Wallace Pg. 91 )

            Van Gogh depicted birds descending to feast on the seeds as The Sower casts the new seeds that vibrate in dabs of blue and yellow. This refers to the sower parable of Jesus—yet, Van Gogh’s burning sun dominates the yellow sky, suggesting a warm pantheistic god. The vertical impasto strokes draw the stalks of grain, as thickly brushed sunrays spear through the background. In contrast, Millet’s The Sower is kinetic in posture but static in its realism. Realism (often used to mean naturalism) implies a desire to depict things accurately and objectively .Its message could be interpreted as an academic response to academic rules. Van Gogh was working outside of these rules. Peasants were much closer to how Van Gogh saw himself, and how people responded to his somewhat motley presence. Millet identified himself as a peasant, but in fact was financially comfortable in his later life. Vincent was a peasant literally and figuratively-- with painting his way of augmenting the nobility of a simpler life. The active images in Van Gogh’s The Sower shows a painter parodying nature. This was the painter’s decision to imitate reality or reject it all together.

            Van Gogh insisted he painted intrinsically what he saw and abstraction was not his goal. His goal was to tell the truth about life’s energy. Van Gogh’s perceptions were a true reflection of who he was, which was an individual, an expressionist and an artist.  He wrote Theo stating; “If I have to *paint in the abstract I would rather not paint at all”. (Roskill Pg.336) Van Gogh was a Dutch painter and Millet was French, and the Dutch painted dark and the French lighter. Van Gogh’s reaction to sunny Arles was to illuminate the very nature of his own being and that, which was in front of him. Mllet sought to focus on only one subject as a figurative composition. Van Gogh’s The Sower was a daring departure from Millet but also from Jules Bastien-Lepage .The peasantry Lepage identified with was connected to his having been raised in a farming town, as well. These same agricultural themes inspired Millet, which led to Van Gogh’s inspiration from both painters.  Lepage, like Millet expressed the bleakness in hard work even with all of its virtue and honesty. The man carrying sticks on his back by Lepage is akin to the stylized model that Millet used is his version of The Sower. Van Gogh, like Lepage and Millet, chose to lend compassion to the pathetic, weary features of man as a beast of burden. These are just three of the artists who were influenced by the biblical parable of the sower.

            The Sower by Van Gogh was executed in the blazing Arles sunshine, a life-giving force. This was a quantum leap in artistic revelation. The previous cyclic harvesting theme has miraculously become the emotional property of the artist. Vincent’s The Sower re-seeds the earth but is absorbed in a color play that now transcends art that is beyond God and nature. The artist is the total revealer of phenomena while the figurative academic rules are swallowed up by the power of Futuristic-Expressionism right on the edge of the Symbolist movement.

The yellow bountiful sun of Van Gogh’s design is centralized like a religious altar-- glowing in a thick paint of artistic genesis. The conventions of perspectives are further challenged with an impressionistic pigment of purple counterpointing yellow. The moral and socialist image of Millet’s The Sower is absorbed into a new vision of painting-- one that is psychological and compresses images into a continuous weave of paint intending to collide courageously with the past. In a letter to Theo,  “ And I should not be surprised if The Impressionists soon find fault with my way of working, for it has been fertilized by the eyes of Delacroix rather than by theirs. Because, instead of trying to reproduce exactly what I have before my eyes, I use color more arbitrarily so as to express myself forcibly.” (Roskill Pg.277)

 

            In Millet’s The Sower, the figure of the sower is moving but he sky and the land are flat dull colors. It is a symbol of an animated figure with the social responsibility to work. The private collectors would regard the painting as “dark” and “ugly.”” Millet’s The Sower is an invented sower who is burdened with the artist’s thoughts; but he is a creeping shadow on a ploughed field, which is only a field of subjective memory. Clad in the costume of the proletariat he casts the seeds on to an ambiguous dark hill with a soft, looming sky suggesting hope. These are not his seeds, nor his fields—but, probably God’s sky (Millet unwittingly created a poster child for Socialism!). In Vincent Van Gogh, A Biography, Julius Meire Graefe observes,“ Another peasant ploughs near the horizon with his oxen, or rather there is a silhouette plough with motionless animal silhouettes, in front of a sky canvas in which birds cut out of paper attempt to flap their immoveable wings.” (Graefe Pg 125) In Van Gogh’s’s The Sower a peasant strides across a field of kinetic soil and a yellow, pulsating sky with a power of movement carrying the viewer. “Hundreds of Sowers were embodied in one figure. He strides along, not for you, not for art, not for Van Gogh, but for his work, with every nerve stretched to its purpose and every limb and every rag on his body forming part of the action.” (Graefe Pg.25) The field is all radiant and plowed in Van Gogh’s Sower and the seeds are thrown symbolically unto life itself. The Sower has become a historical everyman tilling in a linear cyclical ebb and flow.

            The lines and colour in Van Gogh’s The Sower have an ephemeral value created as solid structure. “Millet’s The Sower belongs to the other days, to the days of Millet’s bourgeois symbolism. Van Gogh’s matter-of-factness and his heroic simplicity are such that in a few centuries his copies will be regarded as the originals, and Millet’s originals as weak imitations.” (Graefe Pg. 26). Vincent would write to Theo;” The little house in which Millet lived, I have never seen it, seen it, but I imagine that those four little human nests are of the same kind.” (Roskill Pg. 230). The motif of the sowing countryman came about early in Van Gogh’s Dutch period (Potato Eaters) and was bolstered by Millet’s example. In Arles 1888 we can see how Van Gogh was influenced by Gauguin and Japanese painting with its diagonal tree similar to Gauguin’s Jacob Wrestling with the Angel (1888)—however, the broken-off branch is typical of the trees Van Gogh developed in Holland. (Hammacher Pg.99) The move to Arles brought a fresh perspective, as we have seen. The Sower contrasts loud violet tilled soil counterpointed by warm yellow wheat and sunburst. Van Gogh’s The Sower is at the right corner of the painting-- unlike Millet’s which dominates the entire canvas. Millet’s The Sower seems like a socialist strut compared to Van Gogh’s similarity to an eidetic phenomenological reduction as described by the philosopher, Husserl 1859). Millet is mimetically inspired while Van Gogh is an inventor of a new mimesis, while still maintaining the original epistemology.

             In Van Gogh’s painting, the body of the The Sower appears to be a connection between the two complementary colors. The boy in Van Gogh’s painting blends into the field, but his eyes are fixed into the horizontal sky. There is a tension in Van Gogh’s painting that Millet might not have used. The tension for Millet was the bourgeois response to his lionizing a peasant in a tense political atmosphere of power protectionism. Van Gogh’s brush strokes do seem harsh and quick. The cold French hill in which Millet placed his sower is very different from the heated, flat heaven within Van Gogh’s sower strides. When Van Gogh arrived from Paris to Arles in February, everything was blossoming. Gone were the grays of The Netherlands.

 Van Gogh wrote to Theo from Arles;” Those who don’t believe in this sun are infidels.” (Rosskill August 1888). The excitement of the countryside is expressed in as if the fields were alive with its growing crops, cobalt skies and the land shimmering, glowing and vibrating. Van Gogh celebrated and loved the drama of nature while Millet used it as a backdrop for his narratives. Millet’s The Sower trods a proud burden mandated by the inevitability of nature and the necessity of work. “Vincent probably led a double existence in Arles. Perhaps everybody in similar circumstances would have done the same. His painting was a sensuous surrender to a strange form of nature, really a wild orgy. ”(Graefe Pg.66) Paris was a different mind-set where art was its own subject with schools and salons Millet and Van Gogh were privy to (as well as their colleagues). “In Arles there were Arlesian men and women, mountains, the sky and colors—things that had to be accepted in silence. In Arles everything was still shapeless and unpainted.” (Graefe Pg.66)

            Although it is true that Van Gogh was also a disciple of Rembrandt and Delacroix, his drawings are organized and mechanical yet coaxed by creativity. His was a responsibility of moral intrigue and the human condition. Unlike Millet, Van Gogh’s color dominated his feelings and emotions. “His was the result of profound self-intuition and experience, he was a naturalist of the first water.” (Graefe Pg.68) The Sower was in many ways Van Gogh himself projected onto the canvas-- guiltless and happy as the paint around him. He once said he could live without God but not without creativity. The biblical sower is a sublimated symbol of that statement and one that consumed Van Gogh until his death. “He possessed a number of undeveloped intellectual aspirations, which might have stood him in great stead, but he put them on one side because he considered them unpure.” (Graefe Pg.68)

            The individual was Emile Zola’s claim to artistry, but one that Van Gogh would personify past the Impressionist and Expressionist timeline. In a letter to Theo Van Gogh wrote; “Zola says,” Moi artist, je veut vivre tout haut-veut vivre” (I as an artist want to live as vigorously as possible-I want to live) without mental reservation-naïve as a child. No, not as a child, as an artist-with good will, however my life presents itself. Now look at all those studied little mannerisms, all that convention, how exceedingly conceited it really is, how fundamentally wrong is the man who doesn’t feel himself small, who does not realize he is but an atom.” (Holt Pg.474) Van Gogh’s The Sower is as vigorous as any peasant could be illustrated. He has taken the viewer from a grain of sand into the infinite universe.

            The Sower could very well be an individual creation inspired by God, life, and art, or Van Gogh’s creation alone. Van Gogh created a reality that sublimated his feeling of being a failure at life. In 1880 after failing at teaching, gallery work and preaching he had decided to channel his passion for humanity. He had already studied and copied Rembrandt and the dark Dutch style. He needed the freedom to personalize a painting like The Sower. He no longer followed the Masters—instead he gravitated to a radical and different way to paint. In Paris, he was influenced by Seurat’s pointillism/divisionism. Before Paris, Japanese prints and its lines and colors influenced him. He had dabbled in Impressionism but it wasn’t enough. He wanted the pure force of emotion with powerful color and thick swirls.

            Millet, with his choice of muddy/earthy tones, portrayed the sower as a stocky, well-built young man –implying a certain working-class nobility and this characterization came to be associated with the Social Realist movement. This nobility if viewed from the perspective of Social Realism creates even more meaning. The peasant can be viewed as a sower of social justice or a voice for the lower classes yearning for social mobility and expressing this is social protest and descent. The bright sun of Millet’s The Sower could indicate that he has the forces of social justice on his side.

            Van Gogh displayed a kinship of anger and ruthless reality that was different than Millet’s. Van Gogh tried to be artistically obsequious by signing his name Atelier Vincent, and even signed some of his drawings with the new name. He came to the conclusion that there was not a market for pictures of peasants unless he said,”they were--perfumed.” In another letter to Theo Van Gogh writes:

             I can see that even Millet, just because he was so serious, couldn’t help keeping good    

            courage. That is something peculiar, not in all styles of painting. Those who seek real                   simplicity are themselves so simple and their view of life is so full of willingness and         courage, even in hard times. It must be-“une revolution qui est, puisqu’il faut qu’elle          soit.”

(Roskill 1888) Van Gogh further purified the work of Millet-- taking it from a static painting to a living color field.

            Millet once wrote; ”Art began to decline from the moment that the artist did not learn directly and naively upon the impressions made by nature. Cleverness naturally and rapidly took the place of nature, and decadence then began…at the bottom of it always comes this; a man must be moved himself in order to move others.”(Ruskinp124-129). Van Gogh’s The Sower was his first attempt to make an original contribution to Modern Art since his art studies in Paris. What made it original and unlike Millet was the violent juxtaposition of bold colors—which were yellow and violet. He was clearly moved by Millet’s subject and the effect on its time. It was the message that drove him to imitate but he was approaching it from a very apprehensive place. He wrote to Theo in 1888, “The sketch keeps tormenting me…and I wonder whether I should tackle it seriously and make a terrific painting of it. My God! How I should like that.” (Roskill 1888)

            The solitary man in both paintings has new meaning in Van Gogh’s Sower he as taken epistemology back to the cave paintings and then to the future. This work appears unimpeded, without pretense and suddenly freed art from academic perspective and appropriate color. It is a new language. Van Gogh had imagined the ultimate masterpiece as speaking  “a symbolic language through colour alone”. And in this sense, it would truly be a modern piece. He wrote in a letter to Theo in 1888, “ Could The Sower be painted in color, contrasting violet and yellow together, for example—Yes or no? Yes, of course. Well do it then! Yes—that’s what Pere’ Martin said, too: “Il faut faire le chef-d’ouevre”. (Roskill 1888)

             Millet’s The Sower has now been transformed into a fractal mirage of thick paint animating textures and de-constructing the figurative. 1888 was a time of change in the world. An inflorescence of new ideas and paradigms were constantly being introduced. Darwin, Marx, the Industrial Revolution as well as the advent of photography (which was supposedly infinitely reproducible) changed the way people looked at the world and art. Van Gogh was compelled to stay informed of these shifts, but was foremost a painter. The world’s progress was not as important to him as his own artistic progress. He saw cities as being unclean and superficial. He wrote to Theo; “It is curious that my painted studies seem darker in town than in the country.” (Roskill, Antwerp, end of Dec. 1885). In the country he could create using light itself as a pallet. It was life giving and the light gave to him joy and inspiration and so it was Arles that became his muse. His world was a world of pure creativity and he had no peers that could follow him.

 In a letter to Theo he writes;” “Oh, my dear boy, sometimes I know so well what I want. I can very well do without God both in life and in my painting, but I cannot, ill as I am, do without something which is greater than I, which is my life-the power to create.” (Roskill-Arles, early September 1888). Van Gogh was seriously concerned how other artists viewed and criticized his work-- and it must have hurt deeply when Cezanne told him “you paint like a mad man.” It is good that Millet never saw Van Gogh’s version of The Sower for he might have had a hard time understanding the translucent energy of Van Gogh’s work as well.

 

*Van Gogh referred to his own painting The Sower as “a failure and a glorified study”. (Roskill June 24,1888) Although it is said that imitation is the highest form of flattery, Van Gogh deconstructed Millet’s balanced figurative statement into a radical experiment of color and emotional intelligence whose departure from convention still resonates and documents a quantum leap towards Modern Art (i.e., Symbolism. Cubism). The student has become the master. Van Gogh however was unsure of his direction like most visionaries and carried doubt with him always. In a letter to Theo, Van Gogh asks; “Did Pissarro say anything about The Sower? Afterwards, when I have gone further in these experiments, The Sower will still be the first attempt in that style.” (Roskill 289-Arles, September 8, 1888). That style Van Gogh differentiated him not only from Millet but the Impressionists and Post-Impressionists. The direction was his and his alone and one that created great quarrel with Gauguin.  He writes, “I have tried to express the terrible passions of humanity by means of red and green. The room is blood red and dark yellow with a billiard table in the middle there are four lemon-yellow lamps with a glow of orange and green. Everywhere there is a clash of the most alien reds and greens, in violet and blue”.  (Roskill,Arles September 8, 1888) Van Gogh changed the previous narratives of composition and nature into a language of color theory.

            Van Gogh’s father was a minister and clashed with the young Van Gogh’s passionate artistic temperament. He wrote Theo that his father’s righteousness turns everything that is light into darkness. The Dutch influence was replaced at the end of his life with a new art and a self-exiled determinism. “ He longed for the world of men. Life without them was blank. Vincent demonstrated this theme in three of four professions .He will appear in his relations to his parents, his brother, the women he loved, his teacher and his friend. These relationships, apart from the one to his brother, all alike ended in failure.” (Graefe  Pg.1)

 

            If we psychoanalyze Van Gogh’s The Sower we see a boy. He is planting seeds playfully absorbed in abstract color. This separation from the Bible is an important difference in Millet’ The Sower which was meant to be biblical. This can be observed in a letter to Theo stating,” I have worked in the olive groves, because they have (Bernard and Gauguin) maddened me with their Christs in the Garden, with nothing really observed. Of course with me there is really no question of doing anything from the Bible.” (Roskill Arles 1889)  The boy called Vincent is free at last. Free to express his soul as only he knows how it experiences life.

In conclusion, The Sower by Van Gogh is not a copy of Millet but rather an extension of purpose and therefore a transformation. The bold stance of Millet’s The Sower was meant be held up in the salons and exhibitions as the triumph of noble peasantry via biblical imitation and association. Van Gogh’s The Sower is a smile of light that resonates with the sun. It is a clarion call to freedom of expression. It is art for art’s sake to the tenth power. It is free from the pin- point accuracy and approval of his critics.

 

 If being an artist is to be representative and concise, Millet is the victor. If an artist is one who sacrifices his soul for purpose it is Van Gogh. The laughing sun in Van Gogh’s The Sower is the laughter in Van Gogh’s heart in which he could create a world where creativity exists for its own sake and can therefore be the bread of life and the creator of new consciousness. Van Gogh transformed the fertile seed of Millet’s ground and grew a new hybrid of visual art in motion.

Unfortunately, Van Gogh did not live to see his extraordinary contribution to art, but he intuitively understood the consequences of originality. In his last letter to Theo he writes;

“ Well, my own work, I am risking my life for it and my reason has half-foundered owning to it—That’s all right, but you are not among the dealers in men so far as I know, and you can choose your side. I think, acting with true humanity, but what’s the use?”(Roskill Pg.340,July 1890)

 

…And now we are left to marvel at the colors of his brave, exquisite and elegant humanity.

Je sais ou’ se tou’ve Paris-Dans le coueur de Vincent.

 

 

 

Bibliography

Argan, Carlo, Art Classics, Van Gogh Rizzoli, International Public, Inc., 2004, New York City, NY  (Pg. 94)Print

 

Bolton, Roy A Brief History of Painting Magpie Books, Constable & Robinson Ltd, 2006, London Print

 

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New York City, London (Pg 1,25,26,66,68,125) Print

 

Hammacher, A.M., Vincent Van Gogh, Genius and Disaster, 1968, Abradale Press/Harry N. Abrams, Inc., New York, NY (Pg.99) Print

 

 

Janson, H.W., Rosenblum, Robert, 19th Century Art, 1984, Harry N. Abrams, Inc., New York, NY and Great Britain (Pg.429)

 

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Roskill, Mark, The Letters of Vincent Van Gogh 1927, Constable and Co., New York, NY (Pg.230, 277,289,340…others by date of letter) Print

 

Wallace, Robert, The World of Van Gogh, 1969, Time-Life Books, Inc., Alexandria, VA

Pg 91, 102) Print

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 


Lewton Jones' on deconstructing Plato

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