Friday, January 25, 2008

Through a Different Lenz*

Picture two people driving up a highway, talking about the clouds they see through the windshield. Soon they have to develop a careful terminology to make sure they’re talking about the same things: Is that the L-shaped hole next to a lobe or the one next to a bulge? Concave or convex bulge? What’s the scale of fuzziness? How gray is dark gray? Is the fringe around the top more like a lion’s mane or more like tongues of flame?

Any discussion of something as nebulous as aesthetics gets the same way pretty quickly.

My high school friend Andrew grew up and joined the dotty Swiss.

He proposed last year that we both read Georg Büchner’s “Lenz” on January 20. The first line of the short piece is (in English) “On 20th January Lenz crossed the mountains.”

I was too busy last year, but I did buy the book. This year, I sat down and read.

Every great work is in some way about someone crossing some mountains. In this case, one might say of Lenz that after crossing the mountains, he went around the bend. Put most simply, it’s a story of a man’s breakdown, or pieces of it, fictionalized from actual journal entries made by Johann Friedrich Oberlin. Lenz was a real man who really had a breakdown; Büchner retells the story a half-century later.

The story of the breakdown holds less fascination for me than it might. Paul Simon observed, “Breakdowns come and breakdowns go.” My favorite story of a breakdown is F. Scott Fitzgerald’s “The Crack-Up,” not because of the story itself but because it contains this line:

“The test of a first-rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposed ideas in the mind at the same time, and still retain the ability to function.”

When looking at American letters, that single line seduces me better as a razor than Henry Adams’s entire blunt-force trauma on the Virgin and the Dynamo.

Getting back to Lenz, and going past the breakdown, the piece has some interesting thoughts on an artist’s aesthetic preference. (I’ll skip the obvious question of how we want to weigh the judgment of an artist poised on the edge of a breakdown. Büchner chose what to write here, not Lenz.)

“Those writers, [Lenz] argued, of whom it was said that they reflected reality in fact knew nothing whatever about it, but even they were a good deal more bearable than those who sought to transfigure reality.”

Büchner’s Lenz expresses a taste for realism, which need not be everyone’s taste. (Büchner’s tribute to Lenz transfigures Oberlin’s account and presumes to gain insight.) He continues: “We . . . have no need to ask whether something is ugly or beautiful, both are overridden by the conviction that ‘Everything created possesses life,’ which is the sole criterion in matters of art.”

Having praised everything created, he goes on to say that only Shakespeare, folk songs, and here and there a shred of Goethe are good enough for him, and “Everything else can be thrown in the fire.”

Lenz proposes that the artist should “enter completely into the life of the meanest of men and then reproduce it with every twitch of an eyebrow, every wink and nod, the whole subtle, hardly perceptible play of facial expression.” Lenz was around in the late 1700s; Büchner wrote this in the early 1800s. I’m reminded very much of Van Gogh’s late 1800s sensitivity to the peasant, his enormous struggles to capture something almost inexpressible in the faces and straining bodies of ordinary workers.

Lenz goes on to describe a perfect tableau he saw lately—“two girls sitting on a stone, one putting up her hair, the other helping”—and he describes how he ached to capture the image, and then “They stood up, the beautiful tableau was gone for ever; but as they clambered down amongst the rocks there was yet another picture.” We’ve all been around on days when everything seemed beautiful. Sometimes it’s our own mood; sometimes it’s the light.

Without getting too deep into it (is that a lobe or a bulge?), I’d say the same questions come to my mind when I’m out trying to grab chunks of the great big world in my little camera, or occasionally when I’m writing, or when I’m looking at someone else’s representation of what they once saw, whether it’s a piece of writing, or a sculpture, or a flat image, or a piece of music.

I’m not as passionate about one particular aesthetic as Büchner’s Lenz. I can take great joy in gritty realism; I can find transcendence too in highly stylized idealism. I’m not much of a believer that one style is inherently better than any other, though I do think that some specific pieces can be ranked above others.

I can stand on the shoulders of another 200 years of Western critical thinking and point out that even the so-called realist is still picking and choosing what he’s going to put into his piece; his selection carves his identity into the work and keeps it from being necessarily more “real” than anyone else’s selection. With the benefit of modern neuroscience, I can point out that we each perceive the same world differently anyhow: For one person, red is associated with the cry of a bird at sunset; another ties red to the taste of tea. Which is real? (Neither.)

So as I cross the mountains, when I spot a red flower, I might stop and see if it smells good, and if the light’s right, I might try to capture what it is I see. I might frame that red flower against a rock, to highlight the texture, or against grass, to highlight the color, or against a cloud, because it reminds me of tongues of flame. Any of these would be “real,” as far as that goes, but each would still be a specific way of communicating what struck me about that flower on that day.

And when I’m standing in a museum, or thumbing through a magazine, or puzzling over a poem, I sometimes put myself in the artist’s shoes and try to imagine what that person saw, what flash of wings in a cornfield struck them so much that they tried to capture it, to seize it as Lenz wanted to freeze the image of two golden sisters setting their hair, and to pass it on to the next human—in the next room, or centuries away—and say, “See, this is what was so sublime about being here today.”

*The pun is unearned. Since the name is German, I’m fairly sure it’s pronounced “Lentz.”

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