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Marc Chagall, Carl Jung, and the Plasticity of Revery


Marc Chagall, Birthday, 1915


I have not written too much here on this blog about Jewish-American fiction, although I've given a talk on YouTube, as well as done some podcasts on the Red Purple Circus Radioshow on the subject. And one talk on YouTube was about the difference, as I perceived it, between Jacobs and Josephs, a topic which I wish to explore in further detail tonight in this blog post.


It seems sane to me to say there is a tradition in prose beginning with Tolstoy and migrating into works by writers like Philip Roth and Joshua Cohen, a tradition that is joined by the works of Kakfa, who makes the Jacob-Joseph distinction confusing, as he seems a strange amalgam of each. Yet we can say with some certainty that revery, fantasy, fabulism, is not a central or vital quality to the works of Roth or Tolstoy, and that rather than fantasy works by both authors involves a kind of conceptualization of the writing of fiction as a form of labor.


In contradistinction to this way of thinking about writing fiction, I posited the notion of the Josephs, the dreamers, and argued that at the head of this camp would be Chagall. If there is any fact to this description, any helpfulness or pragmatics, though, what might it mean? How might it help us interpret?


It might be useful to begin with to make a distinction, tenuous but hopefully helpful, between imagistic consciousness and lexical consciousness, while allowing for the fact of a William Blake who combines both and is the father of all hybrid forms in literature, I would argue, as well as a kind of presager to the internet because of his work in design in the context of word and image. But to posit lexical and imagistic consciousness is to then raise questions about boundaries, categories, how meaning or meanings are communicated; it is to explore the nature of symbol communicated by the image imagined through the word, or the nature of symbol communicated by the image in the rhythm, language, and harmony, the gestalt, of a larger image - a painting, say, by Chagall, or one of his stained glass windows, or the semantic possibilities that inhere in a square painted by Malevich, or a strange fantastic dustscape that seems to touch aspects of the technicolor and Disney in interesting ways by Alice Pelton, or a self-portrait by Alice Neel in old age.


When we speak of imagistic consciousness, we seem to need then to invoke a kind of sensemaking involved with looking at and understanding an image, or somehow the image making sense to us in deep unconscious ways; and to do so we need to take into account unconscious autobiographical experience. What do images communicate to us? How do they communicate to us? For I would argue that they do not communicate to us, whatsoever, through any notion of the historical sans autobiography, and that any experience of art, from a child to a layperson to a scholar, studying it from a perspective that is merely historical is probably not going to get from it what most of us expect from it: that is, catharsis, imagination, experiences of closure, openings, thought activated or animated, identification with characters, the pleasure of suspense, action, of modes of fiction like detective stories or science fiction of Westerns or adventure stories, and how all these various tendencies, directions, movements, idioms, languages, speak to our souls and give us our own language for understanding ourselves and others.


What is clear to me is that there is no standard for verisimilitude, so we cannot import any fixed sense or understanding to the nature of images or words exactly; a word in a video poem will be experienced differently, will work differently, than a word in a poem on a page, because of the nature of things like context and medium; a work of stained glass, a painting, a thumbnail image, a sculpture, a drawing in a graphic novel, a symbol on the cover of a book, a found poem by Bern Porter or a visual poem by Joel Lipman, the cover of an album, a page in a book by William Blake, these will also be experienced differently, and work differently, because of things like context and medium. But if we discuss revery as a kind of verisimilitude involving fantasy and dream, and therefore aspects of the Joseph story, we find that this in turn suggests a kind of plasticity in and of the imagination, since fantasy by its very nature, like dream, or fable, is a form that involves metamorphoses, where the bounds of the human are broken into by the different sense of things in the human-animal world, as in Ovid, or myth; the rules of pathos still operate, but the rules of verisimilitudes more closely aligned with history, and therefore plot, and therefore in some sense labor, (though not necessarily comedy or tragedy, which makes all of this quite confusing at times), seem to be broken, so that we see a man with a green face staring in a Chagall painting into the eyes of a beautiful horse-like creature, and the painting makes sense to us in a way that the humdrum perspectival world outside our window right now might not.


There are certain artists that seem very comfortable in this mode of revery: I'm thinking of Yoel Hoffmann, Bernard Malamud, Ben Katchor, Liana Finck, and all four seem deeply indebted to Chagall for introducing into the Jewish vernacular in the context of both lexical and imagistic consciousness a kind of symbology, and therefore a kind of language, and therefore a kind of value-commitment. But what's most interesting to me about this, among many things, as a critic, is that this migration seems to have happened from painting into prose, and painting into the graphic novel. This then suggests that we need to widen our accounts of influence to think about not only intrapoetic relations, as Harold Bloom argued, but also interartistic relations, since revery itself seems to require for its survival a kind of dismissal of more orthodox approaches in order to migrate into the forms that are suitable for it; or, put another way, the nature or idea of the symbology of a painter flying into the symbology of a writer seems suited to the very nature of revery as something both magical and unexpected.



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