The Artistic Difficulty of the Woman as Such

ImageOn Sunday, the 28th of May, 1882, Vincent Van Gogh writes to his friend Anthon Van Rappard, concerning the prostitute Clasina Maria Hoornik, commonly known as Sien, whom he would live with for two years and who would drown herself in the Rotterdam harbor in 1904:

het leven is er over heengegaan en smart & tegenspoed hebben haar gemerkt –– nu kan ik er iets mee doen.

(The approved English translation of the Van Gogh Museum is: Life has given her a drubbing, and sorrow and adversity have left their mark on her — now I can make use of it.)

I came across this quote in a Spanish translation of Guido Ceronetti’s essay Dolore-Tempo-Thanatos: la donna in tre immagini. The Spanish translator, who probably did not look at the Dutch, is faced with an ambiguity upon encountering the partitive clitic “ne” in the Italian. The version in Ceronetti’s original text runs: Presentemente posso estrarne qualque cosa. Just afterward, Ceronetti quotes the same phrase in French, which was presumably the language of his edition of Van Gogh’s letters and which, like Italian, has a partitive clitic (en) at its disposal: en tirer quelque chose. The Spanish translator seems not to have had access to the Dutch original, and was unable to judge from grammatical evidence alone whether the ne in the Italian text or the en in the French referred to “sorrow and adversity” or to Sien herself. Compelled by the requirements of his language to make a choice, he has written: now I can make use of her.

Error or no, this elimination of Ceronetti’s ambiguity clears the way for a very fruitful manner of thinking about the text and about Van Gogh’s perception of this woman, in whose agonies he perceived a sort of divine torment that was perhaps necessary to his idea of art. The passage continues:

It is cruel and fascinating, this en tirer quelque chose. If he had not been able to get anything out of her, what would he have done? Would he have punished that body for not being sufficiently a man of sorrows [English in original]? And yet, the secret of Sien was to be precisely the sorrow-body required to satiate Vincent’s need to make himself responsible to any possible outcry against the world’s sidereal silence.

So often, art is predicated on the exploitation of the sufferings of others. In the so-called Western tradition, the sufferings of women have been particularly rich grist for this mill. In a sense, the suffering person is a pretext for, at best, the artist’s communion with his own fixed ideas, and at worst, an opportunity to exploit the guilty conscience of the audience for renown and money. Van Gogh seems, however, to have been decent, taking Sien in despite the scorn he faced from his family and writing, concerning her, to his brother Theo:

you who set great store by manners and culture, and rightly so, provided it’s the real thing – what is more cultured, more sensitive, more manly: to forsake a woman or to take on a forsaken one?

It is true though that he left her not long after.

Klaus Theweleit, in his enormous, unfinished tetralogy Das Buch der Könige, asserts that the history of Occidental art and literature can be examined as a mode of suppressing women’s physicality to permit their re-emergence in art:

… the story of Orpheus and Eurydice, the organizing paradigm of the producing couple, which is not so much about the tragic failure to call back the beloved as about a deliberate program of delivering the woman’s body to Hades. In reanimating the body of the dead woman, the man produces new possibility––in other words, “art.”



Julien Green, Diaries

It is so hard to know how complicated life is or is not, or whether its complexity is an abstraction outside of time or depends upon the vicissitudes of self-presentation. Often I have felt that only the jarring, the unassimilable, can rouse one from the spiritual torpor on which the poetic sense of life probably feeds, and present a more just account of how things really are; but then, particularly when I am exhausted or in need of consolation, so-called simple thoughts, elegantly phrased, seduce me with their meditative tenor. 

For some years now I have had the idea that I should read the diaries of Julien Green, but other things always seemed more pressing. It is only because I was so taken with the beautiful cover and shape of this recently published selection, which I could not forget about once I had seen it in LA Central close to the MACBA in Barcelona, which is my favorite bookstore, and bought it the next time I was there, that I finally got around to them. There is a quality of restraint in his writing that recalls the humility of finely crafted instruments or furnishings the beauty of which lies in an absence of excess and an appropriateness to their

8 September 1933

I ask myself often what the sense of life might be, if it does in fact have one, and above all, to what degree the external world exists. What is the meaning, for example, of the disquiet in the Europe of the present moment, the fever in Germany, the anguish of so many men and women who see tomorrow so black and so rife with threats? It is evident that no one can answer this question, but frequently, I have the fleeting impression of glimpsing a world that doesn’t exist, or that doesn’t exist in the manner we imagine. Perhaps the material world has only a symbolic value. This is an idea that has been familiar to me since I was fifteen. Thus it may be that the universal disquiet is the imaginary representation of your own disquiet. The “crisis” is, first of all, inside you. The disorder of the world corresponds to an inner disorder that you rediscover in yourself.


The liberty of dreams cannot be reconstructed in a state of wakefulness.

Alfred de Vigny, The Death of the Wolf

Someone approached me recently about doing a volume of poetry by Alfred de Vigny. My interest in the project was married to a degree of timorousness about my capacity to respect the formal constraints the abandonment of which renders the translation of a poet of this type pointless. To see if I could do it, I chose one of his classic poems, La mort du loup. The English version follows the French. [Update: this project appears dead in the water, but this poem still attracts tons of traffic, so if anyone knows a publisher that might be interested in doing a Vigny volume, please let me know.]

Alfred de Vigny, La Mort du loup (1843)


Les nuages couraient sur la lune enflammée
Comme sur l’incendie on voit fuir la fumée,
Et les bois étaient noirs jusques à l’horizon.
Nous marchions sans parler, dans l’humide gazon,
Dans la bruyère épaisse et dans les hautes brandes,
Lorsque, sous des sapins pareils à ceux des Landes,
Nous avons aperçu les grands ongles marqués
Par les loups voyageurs que nous avions traqués.
Nous avons écouté, retenant notre haleine
Et le pas suspendu. — Ni le bois, ni la plaine
Ne poussait un soupir dans les airs ; Seulement
La girouette en deuil criait au firmament ;
Car le vent élevé bien au dessus des terres,
N’effleurait de ses pieds que les tours solitaires,
Et les chênes d’en-bas, contre les rocs penchés,
Sur leurs coudes semblaient endormis et couchés.
Rien ne bruissait donc, lorsque baissant la tête,
Le plus vieux des chasseurs qui s’étaient mis en quête
A regardé le sable en s’y couchant ; Bientôt,
Lui que jamais ici on ne vit en défaut,
A déclaré tout bas que ces marques récentes
Annonçait la démarche et les griffes puissantes
De deux grands loups-cerviers et de deux louveteaux.
Nous avons tous alors préparé nos couteaux,
Et, cachant nos fusils et leurs lueurs trop blanches,
Nous allions pas à pas en écartant les branches.
Trois s’arrêtent, et moi, cherchant ce qu’ils voyaient,
J’aperçois tout à coup deux yeux qui flamboyaient,
Et je vois au delà quatre formes légères
Qui dansaient sous la lune au milieu des bruyères,
Comme font chaque jour, à grand bruit sous nos yeux,
Quand le maître revient, les lévriers joyeux.
Leur forme était semblable et semblable la danse ;
Mais les enfants du loup se jouaient en silence,
Sachant bien qu’à deux pas, ne dormant qu’à demi,
Se couche dans ses murs l’homme, leur ennemi.
Le père était debout, et plus loin, contre un arbre,
Sa louve reposait comme celle de marbre
Qu’adorait les romains, et dont les flancs velus
Couvaient les demi-dieux Rémus et Romulus.
Le Loup vient et s’assied, les deux jambes dressées
Par leurs ongles crochus dans le sable enfoncées.
Il s’est jugé perdu, puisqu’il était surpris,
Sa retraite coupée et tous ses chemins pris ;
Alors il a saisi, dans sa gueule brûlante,
Du chien le plus hardi la gorge pantelante
Et n’a pas desserré ses mâchoires de fer,
Malgré nos coups de feu qui traversaient sa chair
Et nos couteaux aigus qui, comme des tenailles,
Se croisaient en plongeant dans ses larges entrailles,
Jusqu’au dernier moment où le chien étranglé,
Mort longtemps avant lui, sous ses pieds a roulé.
Le Loup le quitte alors et puis il nous regarde.
Les couteaux lui restaient au flanc jusqu’à la garde,
Le clouaient au gazon tout baigné dans son sang ;
Nos fusils l’entouraient en sinistre croissant.
Il nous regarde encore, ensuite il se recouche,
Tout en léchant le sang répandu sur sa bouche,
Et, sans daigner savoir comment il a péri,
Refermant ses grands yeux, meurt sans jeter un cri.


J’ai reposé mon front sur mon fusil sans poudre,
Me prenant à penser, et n’ai pu me résoudre
A poursuivre sa Louve et ses fils qui, tous trois,
Avaient voulu l’attendre, et, comme je le crois,
Sans ses deux louveteaux la belle et sombre veuve
Ne l’eût pas laissé seul subir la grande épreuve ;
Mais son devoir était de les sauver, afin
De pouvoir leur apprendre à bien souffrir la faim,
A ne jamais entrer dans le pacte des villes
Que l’homme a fait avec les animaux serviles
Qui chassent devant lui, pour avoir le coucher,
Les premiers possesseurs du bois et du rocher.


Hélas ! ai-je pensé, malgré ce grand nom d’Hommes,
Que j’ai honte de nous, débiles que nous sommes !
Comment on doit quitter la vie et tous ses maux,
C’est vous qui le savez, sublimes animaux !
A voir ce que l’on fut sur terre et ce qu’on laisse
Seul le silence est grand ; tout le reste est faiblesse.
– Ah ! je t’ai bien compris, sauvage voyageur,
Et ton dernier regard m’est allé jusqu’au coeur !
Il disait : ” Si tu peux, fais que ton âme arrive,
A force de rester studieuse et pensive,
Jusqu’à ce haut degré de stoïque fierté
Où, naissant dans les bois, j’ai tout d’abord monté.
Gémir, pleurer, prier est également lâche.
Fais énergiquement ta longue et lourde tâche
Dans la voie où le Sort a voulu t’appeler,
Puis après, comme moi, souffre et meurs sans parler. ”

Alfred de Vigny, The Death of the Wolf (1843)

The clouds eloped across the moon in flames
Like smoke above the bonfire whence it came,
The woods were black, to vision’s furthest pass,
We walked in silence through the dew-damp grass,
Brambles teemed beneath the heather’s fronds,
Until, under sap trees like those of Landes,
We saw the gashes from the daunting nails
Of the wandering pack of wolves we had trailed.
We listened, standing fixed, our breath restrained,
Our bodies still, while neither wood nor plain
Was racked or heaved by breezes fulminant;
The weathervane beseeched the firmament
In grief; for the drafts in the heights respired
And only grazed the solitary spires,
While pitched against the stones, the oaks below
Seemed huddled on their elbows in repose.
No sound rang out; when lowering his head,
The oldest of the hunters knelt and said,
— That man who thereabouts had never erred —
While at the crosshatched sand he keenly stared,
Quite softly, that those tracks so freshly laid
Attested to the truculent parade
Of deer wolves with their stripling cubs in flight.
The knives were brandished in the veil of night,
The rifles hidden, with their gleam so white,
Across the brake, we strode toward the fight.
Three men stopped short, and searching what they saw
I glimpsed two flaming eyes, a famished maw,
And four lean forms distinguished there below
Frisking in heather in the moonlight’s glow,
As every day, with leaps and howling voice
At master’s return, the harriers rejoice.
Their forms were like, alike as well their dance,
Though quiet were the wolf-cubs as they pranced.
Aware that two steps nigh and half-asleep,
Their adversary, man, was poised to leap.
The father posed arrect aside a tree,
His wife, marmoreal, impassively
Stayed, like the beast by Romans praised whose breast
Nursed Romulus and Remus, men of flesh
With souls divine. The wolf steps out and stands,
His long claws sinking in the sorrel sand.
He was condemned, we trapped him unawares,
Our men had blocked the path back to his lair.
And then he seized, in fauces hot with hate
Our prize hound’s throat, his fury was so great;
His iron jaws would not forebear to thresh,
Not even when our bullets pierced his flesh;
Our knives, like pincers, made a dreadful clank,
And clashed and clanged as in his bowels they sank,
Till the moment when the choked and lifeless hound,
Now long dead, fell at his feet to the ground.
He glared at us, let fall what he had killed,
Our knives were plunged in his flanks to the hilt
And to the blood-caked dust the beast was pinned;
In crescent cruel our rifles hemmed him in.
Collapsing, still he stares, a hellish gloat,
His face bestrewn with blood heaved from his throat.
In pride he spurned all deference to his death,
He closed his eyes, and fell without a breath.


Against the smoking gun I lad my head,
My feeble will on ill-formed vigor fed,
I thought to chase the she-wolf and her brood,
Who full of rue had vanished from that wood;
Without her cubs, that widow, noble, grave
Would not have left her mate his death to brave;
But she was pledged, her progeny to keep
To teach them to bear hunger, not to weep,
To not submit to machinations vile
That bind the beast of burden to man’s wile,
At his behest to run, to hunt, to kill
The erstwhile lords of forest, rock, and hill.


Alas! I thought, despite all earthly fame,
Our cowardice redounds to our great shame.
That is your wisdom, animals sublime!
To know what you were, and what you leave behind.
Silence alone is great, all else is frail.
— O savage wanderer, well I’ve heard your tale,
Your dying gaze has set my heart afire,
It said: “Your soul by study should aspire
To that degree of stoic haughtiness
That I, though feral-born, have yet accessed:
To wait, to weep, to pray are futile all;
Instead you’d fain your weighty task recall:
To take, as I, that path that fate decrees,
To live, to suffer, and die wordlessly.”

Nicolas Bouyssi on Édouard Levé


Translated on the fly, in the morning, without coffee.

The author’s name is not an evaluative criterion. The author’s name is not a frame. The names Homer and Shakespeare include, perhaps, countless men. The distinction between the abstract and the figurative artwork has long been obsolete. Art has scarcely anything to do with reportage. Art has scarcely anything to do with journalism though it does, perhaps, have something to do with investigation. A monumental work is not more important or ambitious than one that is not so. Literary or artistic pleasure are not based on identification. The possibility of identifying or not identifying with a character cannot be an evaluative criterion. That which art wishes to say lacks any sort of importance, what rather matters is knowing what the epoch seems to be saying via art, and how to decode it. It is always possible to say the same thing through a photo or through text. The arts are symmetrical and take nourishment from one another. The symmetry of praxis is the opposite of diffuseness and of dilettantism. Monumental art, like the timeworn conservation of redundancy, is an art that is afraid of not making itself understood. Architecture is an enduring art with which nearly no one knows how to identify. Decorative art is an ephemeral art that is afraid of its own uselessness. The culture of political engagement, of sternness, has become a ghetto culture, addressing itself solely to those whose apparent searching is derived from their already having found. The bestseller is the cultural logic that dreams of transforming the world into a ghetto. In the one case as in the other, there is no room for interpretation. There is no room for the encounter with an other side, an unforeseen particularity, with alterity, in other words. One has begun to do something, and it progresses, one realizes, up to the point of stumbling over, grazing against, the limits and the interest of one’s milieu or one’s epoch.

From: Esthetique du stéréotype: essai sur Édouard Levé (2011).