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In France, the 1890s saw something of a religious revival, as people looked to the consolations of Catholicism’s moral order as an antidote to wider upheavals in society, which had reached a low point during the Paris Commune in 1871. Nor was the religious revival confined to Catholicism. Buddhism was another creed garnering enormous interest as the end of the century approached. So Monet’s transposition of the empirical world into colored light can also be seen in the context of Buddhist ideas about the interconnectedness of all things.

In a sense, the very transience Monet depicted depreciates value. When Milan Kundera wrote about “the unbearable lightness of being,” the author meant exactly this: “What happens but once,” he wrote in his 1984 novel, “might as well not have happened at all.” Registering this can be liberating. It can free us from the heavy burden of history. But what is lost is no less than our sense of reality, which is rooted in the feeling that our existence has weight and a set of meanings steeped in tradition, shadowed by consequence. Deprived of this weight, Kundera wrote, reality threatens “to splinter into thousands of split-second impressions.”

Toward the end of his career, Sigmund Freud wrote an essay called “On Transience.” He began by recounting a conversation with a poet friend who had told Freud that he struggled to find joy in the beauty of the countryside through which they were strolling, knowing that “all this beauty was fated to extinction, that it would vanish when winter came, like all human beauty and all the beauty and splendor that men have created or may create.”

Freud could find no way to dispute his friend’s apprehension. But, he wrote, “I did dispute the pessimistic poet’s view that the transience of what is beautiful involves any loss in its worth.” On the contrary, he claimed, its worth is increased. “Transience value is scarcity value in time.”

It’s a reassuring notion. Just as we place a higher value on certain objects because they are scarce, we might value moments in time precisely because of their transience. We may not be able to commodify transience as we can rare objects, but there are other, more intimate ways to confer value.

Monet understood the challenge of painting transience, of capturing time as it intersected with colored light. It meant working quickly, and learning to live with doubt and dissatisfaction. “One must know how to seize the moment of the landscape,” he wrote, “for that moment will never return, and one always wonders if the impression one received was the right one.”

He probably didn’t need Freud to interpret his collapsing cathedral dream. It was clearly a manifestation of the stress he was under as he attempted something no painter had tried. But Freud was more than just an interpreter of dreams, and he had a special way of tempering anxiety. His thoughts on transience — essentially, “if no moment ever returns, we should appreciate all the more each moment that is given us” — palliate Monet’s otherwise terrifying vision.

Freud’s conversation with his poet friend took place right before World War I, when so much of value, including millions of young lives and countless centuries-old buildings, would be destroyed. Mourning the loss of the things we love, Freud said, is inevitable and natural. But mourning ends.

“When once the mourning is over,” he concluded, “it will be found that our high opinion of the riches of civilization has lost nothing from our discovery of their fragility. We shall build up again all that war has destroyed, and perhaps on firmer ground and more lastingly than before.”

Perhaps. Perhaps. Repeat it 30 times and we may believe it more. Or less.



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