I was reading Hamlet recently. You know the story – he comes home from studying at university on the occasion of his father’s funeral, only to find that his mother has already gotten remarried to Claudius, the brother of Hamlet’s father. And as if that isn’t bad enough, the ghost of Hamlet’s father appears and tells Hamlet and two of his friends, that Claudius murdered him!
Hamlet is such a huge personality that he’s living out events from multiple simultaneous points of view.
We’ve probably all had the experience of something dramatic happening in our lives, and even while we’re in the middle of it, we’re still calmly thinking about it as if we’re outside of ourselves. It reminds me of the line from a classic rock song: “Meanwhile, I’m still thinkin’.”
Hamlet has this going on big-time. Even while he’s full of passion, he’s looking at things from a calm, remote, “outside himself” point of view.
Here’s an example. Hamlet has to make sure it really was the ghost of his father, and not the devil sent to mislead him. So Hamlet writes a short play and gets some visiting actors to perform it. The play written by Hamlet duplicates the events of his father’s murder – right down to the detail of the poison being poured into his father’s ear, a detail that the murderer thinks no one else knows about. The plan is that, if the play is really portraying what happened, then the murderer, Claudius, should freak out and Hamlet will notice.
Sure enough, shortly after the poison is shown being poured into the ear of the victim, King Claudius leaps to his feet.
The king rises.
What, frighted with false fire!
How fares my lord?
Give o’er the play.
Give me some light: away!
Lights, lights, lights!
Exeunt all but HAMLET and HORATIO
The trap worked. King Claudius freaked out and gave himself away. Now Hamlet knows that the ghost told the truth. And what’s Hamlet’s first response? First he has this very distant, philosophical, poetic thought:
Why, let the stricken deer go weep,
The hart ungalled play;
For some must watch, while some must sleep:
So runs the world away.
Some of those words are unfamiliar to us, so I’ll quote the notes from the awesome Barnes & Nobel Shakespeare edition of Hamlet. (If you want to read Shakespeare, get these editions. They’re fantastic.) ”It was believed that deer wept when wounded.” A “hart ungalled” is an “uninjured male deer.” ”Some must watch” means some people have to stay awake. Hamlet’s saying there are winners and losers, and that’s the way it goes.
After this poetic reflection, Hamlet starts kidding around about how well it all went:
Would not this, sir, and a forest of feathers– if
the rest of my fortunes turn Turk with me–with two
Provincial roses on my razed shoes, get me a
fellowship in a cry of players, sir?
Half a share.
A whole one, I.
For thou dost know, O Damon dear,
This realm dismantled was
Of Jove himself; and now reigns here
A very, very–pajock.
You might have rhymed.
Horatio is saying Hamlet ought to have rhymed “was” with “ass.” They’re kidding around about it. Then in the very next line, Hamlet suddenly shows how he really feels about it:
O good Horatio, I’ll take the ghost’s word for a
thousand pound. Didst perceive?
Very well, my lord.
Upon the talk of the poisoning?
I did very well note him.
Then Hamlet immediately starts acting distant again. The very next line:
Ah, ha! Come, some music! come, the recorders!
For if the king like not the comedy,
Why then, belike, he likes it not, perdy.
Come, some music!
Hamlet is full of rage; he’s cracking jokes; he’s putting everybody on, pretending to be crazy; and perhaps he is just about to go truly crazy over what’s happening in his life. His mother married his father’s murderer! Hamlet is such a huge personality that he’s living out events from multiple points of view, all at the same time.
Do you feel it?
Here’s the paragraph that introduce Stubb, in Herman Melville’s MOBY DICK.
Stubb was the second mate. He was a native of Cape Cod; and hence, according to local usage, was called a Cape-Cod-man. A happy-go-lucky; neither craven nor valiant; taking perils as they came with an indifferent air; and while engaged in the most imminent crisis of the chase, toiling away, calm and collected as a journeyman joiner engaged for the year. Good-humored, easy, and careless, he presided over his whale-boat as if the most deadly encounter were but a dinner, and his crew all invited guests. He was as particular about the comfortable arrangement of his part of the boat, as an old stage-driver is about the snugness of his box. When close to the whale, in the very death-lock of the fight, he handled his unpitying lance coolly and off-handedly, as a whistling tinker his hammer. He would hum over his old rigadig tunes while flank and flank with the most exasperated monster. Long usage had, for this Stubb, converted the jaws of death into an easy chair. What he thought of death itself, there is no telling. Whether he ever thought of it at all, might be a question; but, if he ever did chance to cast his mind that way after a comfortable dinner, no doubt, like a good sailor, he took it to be a sort of call of the watch to tumble aloft, and bestir themselves there, about something which he would find out when he obeyed the order, and not sooner.
Do you feel that? If so, read the paragraph once or twice, and fix Stubb in your mind. How would you describe him to a friend if you were having a cup of coffee together at Starbucks? Notice that there’s no way to do it. You could try, “He’s laid-back in the face of danger,” or, “angry whales don’t scare him,” but, true as those statements are, they leave out the intimate consciousness of Stubb’s character that Melville gives us.
This is what a work of art does. It communicates something that is beyond what fact-based, intellectual statements can communicate.
An illustration from the Book Jane Eyre is Reading in Chapter 1, “Bewick’s History of British Birds”
Here are the very first paragraphs of “Jane Eyre” by Charlotte Bronte.
There was no possibility of taking a walk that day. We had been wandering, indeed, in the leafless shrubbery an hour in the morning; but since dinner (Mrs. Reed, when there was no company, dined early) the cold winter wind had brought with it clouds so sombre, and a rain so penetrating, that further out-door exercise was now out of the question.
I was glad of it: I never liked long walks, especially on chilly afternoons: dreadful to me was the coming home in the raw twilight, with nipped fingers and toes, and a heart saddened by the chidings of Bessie, the nurse, and humbled by the consciousness of my physical inferiority to Eliza, John, and Georgiana Reed.
The said Eliza, John, and Georgiana were now clustered round their mama in the drawing-room: she lay reclined on a sofa by the fireside, and with her darlings about her (for the time neither quarrelling nor crying) looked perfectly happy. Me, she had dispensed from joining the group; saying, “She regretted to be under the necessity of keeping me at a distance; but that until she heard from Bessie, and could discover by her own observation, that I was endeavouring in good earnest to acquire a more sociable and childlike disposition, a more attractive and sprightly manner — something lighter, franker, more natural, as it were — she really must exclude me from privileges intended only for contented, happy, little children.”
“What does Bessie say I have done?” I asked.
“Jane, I don’t like cavillers or questioners; besides, there is something truly forbidding in a child taking up her elders in that manner. Be seated somewhere; and until you can speak pleasantly, remain silent.”
We have these two characters – Jane and Mrs. Reed – who are so different from one another that Mrs. Reed does not understand Jane at all. Yet we understand both of them. We understand Mrs. Reed’s personality so well that we see how she can have the opinion she does of Jane, even as we see how completely wrong she is. Both characters are immediately present and vividly real.
For me, the way into the appreciation of this painting is through the faces. Chancellor Rolin is on the left. He’s the wealthy and influential minister who hired Jan Van Eyck to paint this. He’s gazing at the supernatural visitation on the right with a severe and attentive look. To me it feels as though the world of the holy and supernatural is part of his daily work and something he considers a very serious matter indeed.
Now we notice that the others in the painting also have very serious looks. On the right, the Virgin Mary is seated with the infant Jesus, who is making a gesture of blessing toward Rolin. According to the Louvre:
Mary seems to be looking at the cross on top of the globe [that the infant Jesus is holding], prefiguring her son’s suffering and crucifixion.
Again, very serious. And the infant Jesus also has a serious look on his face. It appears that one can say intellectually that the painting is about the severity and seriousness of true Christian devotion. I’d like to suggest that this painting may also be about the seriousness of the search for beauty in life — something I’m not sure I ever felt before I saw this painting.
Do you feel it?
Over 21,000,000 views on YouTube attest to the amazing power of Debussy’s “Claire de Lune”.
As we often note on this site, appreciation of a work of art is a use of emotional ability, and cannot be done by intellectual ability alone. This piece is a great example of that. We can speculate endlessly intellectually regarding what this piece is about. But from the very start our emotional ability is moved and understands it completely.
Update August 22, 2013: Google’s home page today is featuring this same piece by Debussy.
— Sonya Weiss (@SonyaWeiss) August 17, 2013
This one goes out to my Twitter friend @KnitSix, who also likes Cezanne.
This Cezanne painting is breathtaking, even as an image on a web page. You feel exactly the beauty of seeing that same scene for yourself.
Cezanne painted the view from his hotel room. What’s so fascinating, of course, is that you could take a photo of the same view from the same hotel room, and it could be a marvelous photo, but still not communicate the emotional meaning of Cezanne’s painting.
This one goes out to my Twitter friend @TeresaFederici, who also likes Frost.
As regular readers of this site are aware, one thing I do here is to search out big, easy-to-get-with examples of emotional insight in art – examples you can look at briefly and immediately say, “Wow, I get that. It has a huge meaning to me that I grasp with my own emotional ability.”
I’ve been noticing lately that in some cases, it’s very easy to follow along with our intellectual ability. While in others, our intellectual ability may be baffled. Today’s poem by the great Robert Frost is an example of the second kind.
Intellectually this is all very easy to follow up until the last two lines:
Acquainted with the Night
I have walked out in rain — and back in rain.
I have outwalked the furthest city light.
I have looked down the saddest city lane.
I have passed by the watchman on his beat
And dropped my eyes, unwilling to explain.
I have stood still and stopped the sound of feet
When far away an interrupted cry
Came over houses from another street,
But not to call me back or say good-bye;
And further still at an unearthly height,
A luminary clock against the sky
Proclaimed the time was neither wrong nor right.
I have been one acquainted with the night.
As is often the case with Frost’s poems, the last two lines pack a wallop.
Proclaimed the time was neither wrong nor right.
I have been one acquainted with the night.
Intellectually I can’t say how a time can be “neither wrong nor right,” but emotionally, I feel those last lines in a big way: ”Yes – I’ve felt that. I’ve felt exactly what Frost is describing.”
Do you feel it?
Here we have two very famous paintings by the amazing Henri Rousseau: “The Snake Charmer,” and “Tiger in a Tropical Storm.” (Note: we also looked at “Tiger in a Tropical Storm” in a previous post.)
Putting these two paintings side-by-side is going to help us home in on the emotional insight in each one.
Look at “Tiger in a Tropical Storm.” (You can click the red arrow in the lower right to get the image to stay on the screen. Or click on the image to enlarge it.) See how vividly it depicts the tiger’s fear, and how everything is frighteningly in motion.
Now take a look at “The Snake Charmer.” By contrast it’s easy to notice how serene, harmonious, calm, and peaceful it is. Rousseau is communicating something to us emotionally about serenity. Do you feel it?
This is one of Rousseau’s most famous paintings – “Tiger in a Tropical Storm.” Rousseau’s paintings pack a big emotional wallop. You feel the fear, the desperation of the tiger. The white light on the top of the tiger’s head and on the nearby leaves shows the light of a lighting bolt that is alarming him. You feel sympathy for the tiger – and yet, you also feel the tiger is a monster that could eat you. All this can be referenced and pointed to in intellectual terms, in words such as these. Beyond that is the vast and deep emotional content of the work, which can only be appreciated through the use of your emotional ability. Do you feel it?
Today we’ll have a look at one of the most famous paintings of all time, Da Vinci’s “The Last Supper.” It depicts the moment when Jesus has just informed the disciples that one of them will betray him.
The first thing you notice, as a way of finding your way in to the emotional meaning of the painting, is that nobody is feeling the way Jesus is. He’s full of a holy sadness and regret. Nobody else is feeling that at all. To me this communicates an awe of the holy emotions of Jesus, and shows the disparity between those emotions and those of his disciples.
Take a look at the painting. Do you feel it?
Here’s a solid example of emotional insight from Jane Austen.
After playing some Italian songs, Miss Bingley varied the charm by a lively Scotch air; and soon afterwards Mr. Darcy, drawing near Elizabeth, said to her:
“Do not you feel a great inclination, Miss Bennet, to seize such an opportunity of dancing a reel?”
She smiled, but made no answer. He repeated the question, with some surprise at her silence.
“Oh!” said she, “I heard you before, but I could not immediately determine what to say in reply. You wanted me, I know, to say ‘Yes,’ that you might have the pleasure of despising my taste; but I always delight in overthrowing those kind of schemes, and cheating a person of their premeditated contempt. I have, therefore, made up my mind to tell you, that I do not want to dance a reel at all—and now despise me if you dare.”
“Indeed I do not dare.”
Elizabeth, having rather expected to affront him, was amazed at his gallantry; but there was a mixture of sweetness and archness in her manner which made it difficult for her to affront anybody; and Darcy had never been so bewitched by any woman as he was by her. He really believed, that were it not for the inferiority of her connections, he should be in some danger.
This conveys emotional insight all the way through, of course. Perhaps the easiest example to get with from this passage is, “Indeed I do not dare.” You can feel Darcy’s admiration for Elizabeth, his respect for her. You get a sense of his emotion about her and what that emotion means. Read it again – do you feel it?
Here’s another big, easy-to-get with example of emotional insight from J.D. Salinger’s “Catcher in the Rye.” Holden Caulfield is trying to find his little sister Phoebe at her school:
I went down by a different staircase, and I saw another “Fuck you” on the wall. I tried to rub it off with my hand again, but this one was scratched on, with a knife or something. It wouldn’t come off. It’s hopeless, anyway. If you had a million years to do it in, you couldn’t rub out even half the “Fuck you” signs in the world. It’s impossible.
A short time later Holden is waiting to meet his sister. He’s looking at the exhibit of mummies in the Museum of Natural History in New York.
I was the only one left in the tomb then. I sort of liked it, in a way. It was so nice and peaceful. Then, all of a sudden, you’d never guess what I saw on the wall. Another “Fuck you.” It was written with a red crayon or something, right under the glass part of the wall, under the stones.
That’s the whole trouble. You can’t ever find a place that’s nice and peaceful, because there isn’t any. You may think there is, but once you get there, when you’re not looking, somebody’ll sneak up and write “Fuck you” right under your nose. Try it sometime. I think, even, if I ever die, and they stick me in a cemetery, and I have a tombstone and all, it’ll say “Holden Caulfield” on it, and then what year I was born and what year I died, and then right under that it’ll say “Fuck you.” I’m positive, in fact.
One thing I’m noticing more and more lately is that there are cases where intellectually it may not be at all apparent what the emotional insight is referring to; and there are other cases where there’s no doubt about it. This example from “Catcher” is an example in which the author is putting the literal thing he’s having the emotional insight about right in front of you — all the FU’s he sees written on walls in places they should never be.
What Salinger is conveying here more than the literal fact of those FU’s — it’s the emotional impact they have on him; it’s how Holden feels about them and the meaning of those emotions. If you read the passage you’ll feel the emotional insight Salinger is communicating. It can’t be expressed in any other words. That’s why we need works of art!
(Illustration via Listal)
In this passage from J.D. Salinger’s “Catcher in the Rye,” Holden Caulfield has finally gotten back to his house. He’s sneaking in so as not to wake his parents, whom he’s trying to avoid. He’s hoping to talk to his dear sister, Phoebe.
It was dark as hell in the foyer, naturally, and naturally I couldn’t turn on any lights. I had to be careful not to bump into anything and make a racket. I certainly knew I was home, though. Our foyer has a funny smell that doesn’t smell like anyplace else. I don’t know what the hell it is. It isn’t cauliflower and it isn’t perfume–I don’t know what the hell it is–but you always know you’re home.
That’s a perfect example of emotional insight. Intellectually you might say, “Of course you know you are home. It’s your house and you opened the door with your key.” Yes, of course. But emotionally something happens that is beyond that – something that can’t be expressed at all in any intellectual terms. It’s a meaning that can only be felt and understood by the use of your emotional abiliy. It can only be expressed in a work of art.
Read the quote from “Catcher” again. Do you feel it?
One of the things I do regularly on this site is to post big, easy-to-get-with examples of emotional insight. Emotional insight conveys a meaning that can only be grasped using your emotional ability.
Here’s another great example, from Robert Frost.
Love and a Question
by Robert Frost
A stranger came to the door at eve,
And he spoke the bridegroom fair.
He bore a green-white stick in his hand,
And, for all burden, care.
He asked with the eyes more than the lips
For a shelter for the night,
And he turned and looked at the road afar
Without a window light. read more →
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