Remembering to Forget

There is no beauty
without historical remembrance.

- Adorno, Aesthetic Theory [1]

When Bernini had finished his monumental fountain in the Piazza Navona, the Pope and his entourage were present for the unveiling, all carried out with great ceremony. After studying the monument from all sides for a long time, the Pope expressed his admiration but regretted the fact that there was no water flowing to animate the piece. The artist commiserated, the "curtain" was drawn, and the Pope and retinue began to take their leave, at which key moment Bernini gave the signal to his workers to turn on the water, thereby amplifying the amazement of the viewers.[2]

For Bernini, body and spirit were mediated through art usually viewed as a form of inspired play. His Teresa (1645-52), however, which he was in the decidedly historical habit of saying was "the most beautiful work to come from his hand,"[3] shows a marked alteration in the ratio of these categories in ways that can illuminate our approach to contemporary verbal/visual art of difficulty. A quick view yields up a preliminary set of meanings which we can then wash back through with re-visions. Thus, the conventional reaction might be as follows: this is a powerful image of spiritual transformation (intentionality is established ex post facto, as it were, when through historical reconstruction we decide we have reacted as we imagine the artist intended for us to). Bernini, widely considered the premier baroque sculptor, embodied his notion of the transfiguration of the saint in the grip of her epiphany in understandably "period" terms (illusionistic technique,[4] theatrical treatment). Our focus is on the centerpiece of the saint as star of a grand, even grandiloquent but certainly rhetorical sacred drama.

Closer scrutiny, however, opens the work up in unsettling ways. The Cornaro Chapel commission, as Peterson points out, was executed by Bernini during the only period in his life when he was out of favor with the Vatican. Perhaps being on the outside for a change may have sensitized the artist to the darker qualities of life. Clearly it facilitated the creation of an unusual work of art, in the opinion of both the artist (. . . "most beautiful work". . .) and his public. The central sculpture, for example, is made up of not one but two figures, a first decentering. Second, this group is located in a conceived setting which Bernini achieved in part by having the church wall built out so as to create a small, claustrophobic area; "the Cornaro Chapel expresses the idea of confinement in its extremest form."[5] The viewer is forced to look up at the central group and cannot see the entire arrangement at one time. In fact, in a crowning irony the Chapel "cannot be photographed in its entirety,"[6] effectively cutting off our frequently photographically mediated illusion of a totality.[7] This intensifies the decentering mentioned above. By placing seven deceased members of the Cornaro family together with one living member at prie-dieux, the incontrovertibility of chronological time is transcended. By having these figures engaged in different activities (that is, they are not placed so as to be able to witness the transfiguration which is their presumed raison d'être, the system is further skewed. One might argue that Bernini employed an environment (a set of relations) to "play upon" the viewer's structured expectations, to undermine them so as to force a "dramatic" experience. The dethroning of the ego or hypostatized "ideal" spectator is forcibly achieved. Thus, we are cast into a whirlpool of violence rather than spiritual ecstasy. Or are these identical? [8]

Not for his explicators. Peterson, for example, although aware of the special problems which the work poses for us, does not deal with them. For him (as well as for Hibbard[9] and, with slight reservation, for Wittkower[10]), the Teresa receives the party interpretation sketched out above. Facts from the artist's life are even marshalled as evidence. We are thus told that Bernini's treatment "was in every respect orthodox" and that "In art [he]. . . was both innovator and traditionalist, but in religion he was pure traditionalist." [11] Bernini, a Catholic with Jesuit leanings, attended Mass every day, took communion every week, and went on annual retreats for the last forty years of his life. The artist, in other words, was purely and simply presenting us with an acceptable contemporary image of spiritual transformation.

For the most part, this was the way the piece was received in its time, although "one tract of the times accused Bernini of pulling a pure virgin down to earth and making her into a prostrated, prostituted Venus."[12] Those negative reactions which were entered ("theatricality, sham piety, sentimentalism, sexual hyperbole, and vulgar taste"[13]) Peterson writes off to viewers' failure to take into account the chapel setting. He fails, however, to examine the forces into which this setting casts the viewer.

If, as Bazin holds, "the essence of the baroque is the harmony of extremes,"[14] then Bernini's Teresa, cited as exemplum of the baroque, has been subjected to the most consistent and extreme of "misreadings" in an effort to conceal contents which historical and cultural changes have made obvious.[15] That is, only within the presumed context of Christian sacral art (however transformed by its increasing secularization) could one maintain a "harmony of extremes" in the Teresa. Biographical details, practices of the time, reactions to the piece both then and in later periods, so-called formal analyses all have conspired, as it were, to suppress meanings even as they pretended to unravel "the meaning." After all, what really could be safer than an interpretation the reassuring "familiarity" of whose terms (Christian mystical transformation of the commonplace) can be implicitly relied upon?

By allowing the Teresa to stand in a new relationship to Stefano Maderno's Sta. Cecilia (1600), however, we can see a way out of the confines which history and predisposition insinuate into interpretation. Both pieces feature the figure of the female saint as seen by male artists working within the traditions of Christian, representational art. Both focus on a violent abrogation of consciousness, in the case of Teresa through illumination (darkly congealed in the signifier of Cupid's shaft aimed toward her genital area, not her heart) whereas in the case of Cecilia through martyrdom. Both figures are clothed, prostrate. Our attention is initially drawn to the area of the head, but then passes to the bodies. The ambiguity which Bernini works through contrasting the tender, almost provocative look on the cupid/angel's face with that of "transport" on Teresa's is achieved in the Maderno through a tension between the marks of the sword upon Cecilia's exposed neck and the eroticism of her clothed figure. Put otherwise, the focus of the Cecilia is on the absent sword as signifier of the violent opposition of matter and spirit. One of Teresa's legs seems tensed, the other lax, as if she were gripped by sexual transport. Whereas Cecilia is beyond such possibilities, her "transcendence" of the flesh (decay, mortality) has been figured through elevation into the company of martyrs, brought about by a violent demise. The reported failure of her corpse to decompose (discovered in a crypt in the catacombs of Callixtus and quickly sketched by the artist) underscores the implicit message of the transformative power of desire.[6]

The Church's canonization process, however, institutionally converts this very quickly into palatable fodder. At the level of the family, Bernini's piece is structured upon a social formation in the very process of cancelling itself. A member of a religious order, after all, is married to Christ, so that Teresa's social validation (carefully circumscribed within the telos of the Church, let us never forget) is a-social; the entire Chapel being presented as a family commission but confirms this calculated "anti- sociality," since the family members are both unable "to see" what Teresa "sees" (through closed eyes; she has "forgotten" the world) but are themselves engaged in different solo activities (not the least interesting of which is reading, setting up questions of interpretation, the meditative individuality of the aesthetic experience even when conceived in dramatic, communal terms, and others). They are thus united only in name. Yet it is exactly how we "name" with which this piece is concerned. Was Bernini figuring forth an intuition of the radical unnameability of things, poised on the brink of the abyss of the modern in which all names have been stripped away, the process one of a free-floating, even hysterical delirium exactly parallel to Teresa's? Finally, when we concentrate on the central figures themselves, whereas Teresa seems weightless in the best sense of Bernini's "theatricality" (i.e., illusionistic transformation of stone into spirit, Nature having been dominated through the conflicting valences of art in the service of illusion), Cecilia is irrevocably bound to the earth, her very "facelessness" dehumanizing her further. This rules out a simplistic outlining of terms whereby the feminine is identified with either matter, the spirit, or their interpenetration, since both pieces work upon the viewer in oddly similar ways. Bernini, temporarily released from full integration into the art-production mechanisms of his time (by being out of favor), may have been able more keenly to project the dizzying changes which were soon to affect the nascent bourgeoisie's final turning away from feudal/aristocratic social forms. The artist, like a jiu jitsu master, uses our own habitual response patterns against us, causing us to tumble into those emptinesses in his work which correspond with the emptiness within us whose correspondance in the social dimension, mutatis mutandis, is the vanishing of subjectivity under classical industrial capitalism.

Thus the Teresa and the Cecilia can be used for cross-readings of each other which cast into relief a shadow world of sex, violence, hysteria, and paranoia. It is just such forces, as I hope to demonstrate, which lie at the heart of contemporary experimental verbal/visual work. Furthermore, our access to this dimension can only be cross-wise, crablike, jagged, fragmented, which a strictly "political" dialectic best permits.

The baroque aesthetic, then, presents a significant shift in the ratios among the senses, between the artwork and viewer, and within the discrete divisions of any of the models of the mind which one can extrapolate from the period. In fact, the object itself is "imploded," [17] casting the spectator into a realm of experience which defies reason and its various instrumentalities. As such, the modernist debate over the nature of the art object can be said to have begun during the high baroque, in spite of superficial appearances to the contrary.

Bernini's happening upon the other term of his dialectic, I would argue, forms the subject of a sentence whose cupola will be the positive/negative structure of photographic imagery and whose complement is the implicit political contents of the complex manifestations of the "ugly" (and anti-ugly/beautiful) visual/verbal work of our time. In this connection, Adorno's reformulation of the notion of reification should be kept clear: "The two extreme forms of Entkünstung of art, therefore, are reification--art viewed as a thing among things--and psychologism--art viewed as a vehicle for the psychology of the viewer. The reified works of art, which have ceased to speak, are made to say the things the viewer wants them to say and which are the stereotyped echo of himself." [18] Rather, art of value is damaging, disruptive, turns myth against itself. [19] Whereas Bürger's contributions [20] to the seeming historicity of such remarks may help us to separate avant-garde from modern art from the point of view of theoretical formulations, a more "useful" dynamic enables us to see proto-avant-garde practices existing side by side with others in the art of historically discrete periods. Such a dynamic, indebted to Charles Olson's poetics of projective verse as well as the closely related ethnopoetics of Rothenberg, short-circuits the closed loops of analytical criticism through a process of placing the live wires of specific art works in direct contact with that unique juncture between the communicating vases, the spectator. If we remember [21] to forget, the "sentence" above, then, although it may turn out to be the last one, can be "read."

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1 London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1984, p. 96.

2 Attributed to Domenico Bernini in Maurizio Fagiolo, Bernini, Rome: De Luca Editore, 1981, p. 18.

3 Robert T. Peterson, The Art of Ecstasy: Teresa, Bernini, and Crashaw, New York: Atheneum, 1970, p. 54.

4 Ibid., p. 50.

5 Ibid., p. 64

6 Rudolf Wittkower, Gian Lorenzo Bernini: The Sculptor of the Roman Baroque, Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1981, p. 25.

7 The drive to totalize, however, is so strong that engravings have been produced showing all the Chapel's features; such images are regularly reproduced to accompany discussions of the Chapel.

8 "Ich fühlte ihn [den Engel] mehrmals mit diesem [einem langen goldenen Pfeil] in mein Herz stossen und bis in den Schoss dringen, und zog er ihn zurück, so war mir, als ob er an meinen Eingeweiden risse. So heftig war der Schmerz, dass er mir Schreie entlockte. Und so süss ist mir dieses überwältigende Weh, dass ich wünsche, es möge nie enden, und Gott möge immer bei mir sein." Teresa de Avila, in Fagiolo, p. 20.

9 Howard Hibbard, Bernini, Baltimore: Penguin Books, 1965.

10 Wittkower's discussion of the Chapel is summed up as follows: "This urge to use all the means of illusion in the theatre as well as in religious imagery, to try and transport the individual into another reality, seems ultimately connected with the polarity between self-reliance and authority, reason and faith, which afflicted western man seriously for the first time in the seventeenth century: it was the road of escape for those who began to doubt." p. 28. How this "doubt" gets transformed through the means at the artist's disposal seems to us more interesting in that it may permit an otherwise virtually impossible access to art of our time, laden as it has become with the history in between.

11 Peterson, p. 81.

12 Ibid., p. 45.

13 Ibid.

14 Germain Bazin, The Baroque, New York: Norton, 1968, p. 72.

15 Contrast Peterson's interpretation above with the following by Jacques Lacan: "you have only to go and look at Bernini's statue in Rome to understand immediately that she's coming, there is no doubt about it. And what is her jouissance, her coming from? It is clear that the essential testimony of the mystics is that they are experiencing it but know nothing about it." "God and the Jouissance of The Woman," in Feminine Sexuality: Jacques Lacan and the école freudienne, ed. Juliet Mitchell and Jacqueline Rose. New York: W.W. Norton, 1985, p. 147.

16 Bernini would certainly have been aware of the entire courtly love convention as this had been taken up by the Florentine neoplatonists (Ficino, Cardinal Bembo's discourse in The Courtier), thus permitting divine love to be separated off from physical love and other varieties, in a move parallel to the separation of the "thinking subject" from contents of thought and nature as seen in Descartes.

17 That Baudrillard's notion (as applied to the "silent majorities") finds an earlier application in baroque practice simply underscores that what began then is finishing now. See In The Shadow of the Silent Majorities. . . Or the End of the Social. New York: Semiotext(e), 1983, pp. 36, 59.

18 p. 25.

19 Ibid., p. 34.

20 Theory of the Avant-Garde, Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1984. After an illuminating discussion of the social functions of art in various times, which entails a qualification of Adorno's position, Bürger himself returns to a key insight of Adorno's at the end of his book: "Adorno's notion that late-capitalist society has become so irrational that it may well be that no theory can any longer plumb it applies perhaps with even greater force to post avant-gardiste art." (p. 94)

21 "The hysteric suffers mostly from reminiscences." Sigmund Freud and Joseph Breuer, Studies in Hysteria, Boston: Beacon Hill Press, 1964, p. 4.

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