René Magritte and Edgar Allan Poe

René Magritte, "Attempting the Impossible"

René Magritte, “Attempting the Impossible”

Note: I’m on vacation in Chicago at the moment and will put off until Monday an extended reflection on the very disturbing events in Ferguson, Missouri. I can see already that Ralph Ellison will help provide powerful insight into what is going on.

The Chicago Institute of Art currently has a fascinating René Magritte exhibit that has taught me, among other things, that Magritte was drawn to the work of Edgar Allan Poe. Knowing this gave me new insights into the painter.

Supposedly Attempting the Impossible, pictured above, was originally to be given a title honoring Poe. According to the museum’s explanation, writers have linked the painting to a passage from “The Pit and the Pendulum”:

It was not that I feared to look upon things horrible, but that I grew aghast lest there should be nothing to see.

The observation sent me back to the story, which in light of the exhibit became more interesting than I remembered it. Suddenly Magritte was not just a game-playing trickster but someone who saw just how unstable reality is. Rather than being light and playful, he may have been holding on to sanity for his dear life. One biographical detail I picked up—that Magritte avoided Paris’s Bohemian community and lived a middle class style of life in the Parisian suburbs—made sense to me. For all of Magritte’s apparent mockery of the man in the bowler hat who is to be found throughout his work, the conventionality of such a figure also gave the artist a place to stand when everything else was capable to slipping free of its signifier into an infinite play of signification. If we can’t all comfortably agree to the convention that the words for things and pictures we use for them are the things themselves—that the word “pipe” and the picture of a pipe are in fact a pipe (see painting below)—then we have lost the ground beneath us.

The fear of losing his grounding is also what haunts Poe’s narrator when he finds himself in the dungeons of the Spanish Inquisition:

I had swooned; but still will not say that all of consciousness was lost. What of it there remained I will not attempt to define, or even to describe; yet all was not lost. In the deepest slumber — no! In delirium — no! In a swoon — no! In death — no! even in the grave all is not lost. Else there is no immortality for man. Arousing from the most profound of slumbers, we break the gossamer web of some dream. Yet in a second afterward, (so frail may that web have been) we remember not that we have dreamed. In the return to life from the swoon there are two stages; first, that of the sense of mental or spiritual; secondly, that of the sense of physical, existence. It seems probable that if, upon reaching the second stage, we could recall the impressions of the first, we should find these impressions eloquent in memories of the gulf beyond. And that gulf is — what? How at least shall we distinguish its shadows from those of the tomb? But if the impressions of what I have termed the first stage, are not, at will, recalled, yet, after long interval, do they not come unbidden, while we marvel whence they come? He who has never swooned, is not he who finds strange palaces and wildly familiar faces in coals that glow; is not he who beholds floating in mid-air the sad visions that the many may not view; is not he who ponders over the perfume of some novel flower — is not he whose brain grows bewildered with the meaning of some musical cadence which has never before arrested his attention.

Amid frequent and thoughtful endeavors to remember; amid earnest struggles to regather some token of the state of seeming nothingness into which my soul had lapsed, there have been moments when I have dreamed of success; there have been brief, very brief periods when I have conjured up remembrances which the lucid reason of a later epoch assures me could have had reference only to that condition of seeming unconsciousness. These shadows of memory tell, indistinctly, of tall figures that lifted and bore me in silence down — down — still down — till a hideous dizziness oppressed me at the mere idea of the interminableness of the descent. They tell also of a vague horror at my heart, on account of that heart’s unnatural stillness. Then comes a sense of sudden motionlessness throughout all things; as if those who bore me (a ghastly train!) had outrun, in their descent, the limits of the limitless, and paused from the wearisomeness of their toil. After this I call to mind flatness and dampness; and then all is madness — the madness of a memory which busies itself among forbidden things.

Very suddenly there came back to my soul motion and sound — the tumultuous motion of the heart, and, in my ears, the sound of its beating. Then a pause in which all is blank. Then again sound, and motion, and touch — a tingling sensation pervading my frame. Then the mere consciousness of existence, without thought — a condition which lasted long. Then, very suddenly, thought, and shuddering terror, and earnest endeavor to comprehend my true state. Then a strong desire to lapse into insensibility. Then a rushing revival of soul and a successful effort to move. And now a full memory of the trial, of the judges, of the sable draperies, of the sentence, of the sickness, of the swoon. Then entire forgetfulness of all that followed; of all that a later day and much earnestness of endeavor have enabled me vaguely to recall.

So far, I had not opened my eyes. I felt that I lay upon my back, unbound. I reached out my hand, and it fell heavily upon something damp and hard. There I suffered it to remain for many minutes, while I strove to imagine where and what I could be. I longed, yet dared not to employ my vision. I dreaded the first glance at objects around me. It was not that I feared to look upon things horrible, but that I grew aghast lest there should be nothing to see. 

Maybe Attempting the Impossible is inspired by Poe because Magritte is not clear where his painting is emerging from. The painter thinks he is representing the real, but if reality is so elusive, then he doesn’t really know the source of his image. The world we walk on begins to dissolve, held together only by agreed-upon conventions.

While in the Chicago Institute of Art Julia and I also checked out the cubists and other modernists who challenged traditional representation. Magritte, while he seems more representational than Picasso and Braque, is simply questioning in a different way. After the horrors of World War I, one could see why such wholesale questioning would be going on.

Perhaps Magritte gets a special exhibition now because our conventional understandings of reality are once again being upset, this time by globalization and postmodernism. Without commonly held social conventions, societt and political systems start falling apart. Maybe that’s why our politics are becoming dysfunctional and why some are being drawn to fundamentalism and political absolutes. They are reacting against the uncertainty that both Poe and Magritte sensed.

Further thought: I remember literary theorist Gerald Graff making a very prescient critique of the avant garde and deconstruction in the 1970’s. Rather than challenging bourgeois capitalism, as the movements claimed they were doing, Graff said that they were ultimately serving capitalism’s ends by removing any checks to people buying things. The sexual revolution, for instance, would ultimately just open the way for Madison Avenue to use sex more blatantly. Magritte may have realized this. While making fun of middle class respectability–the pipe, the bowler hat–he could also be holding on to them for dear life, lamenting the slippery slope upon which we are embarked.

Maybe this fear explains why I, unlike all but a handful of my colleagues, wear a tie when I teach.

Ceci n'est pas une pipe

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  • http://www.laurelmasse.typepad.com/ Laurel Massé

    I also find it telling that Magritte spent most of his life in Brussels, and was in Paris only three years. I lived in both cities as a child, and their characters are – or at least were – very different

  • Robin Bates

    I wondered about the difference between being Belgian and being French, Laurel–especially after I learned about Magritte’s quarrel with André Breton, essentially the high priest of surrealism (which is an oxymoron). Apparently the atheist Breton criticized Magritte’s wife for wearing a crucifix and Magritte took offense. I don’t know if it’s still true but, for a long time, the French stereotype of Belgians was that they are humorless and overly bourgeois. Maybe Magritte was playing the stereotype to undercut it and Breton, insisting on more purity, didn’t get what he was up to.

  • Robin

    I wondered about the difference between being Belgian and being French, Laurel–especially after I learned about Magritte’s quarrel with André Breton, essentially the high priest of surrealism (which is an oxymoron). Apparently the atheist Breton criticized Magritte’s wife for wearing a crucifix and Magritte took offense. I don’t know if it’s still true but, for a long time, the French stereotype of Belgians was that they are humorless and overly bourgeois. Maybe Magritte was playing the stereotype to undercut it and Breton, insisting on more purity, didn’t get what he was up to.

    Jason Blake, a friend who teaches at the University of Ljubljana, sent in the following Ciaran O’Driscoll poem:

    MAGRITTE
    I am a man in a black bowler hat,
    showing my back to the world.
    If I turn, an apple blocks my face.

    My first glimpse of art was in a churchyard,
    so close it is to death.
    I listened to the silence of that place.

    Sometimes, laid out, she elevates behind me
    as I walk the towpath.
    Stiff-necked, I do not look around.

    My art has no laws of gravity,
    but a woman’s chestnut hair falls to the ground
    and bowler-hatted men are falling rain.

    I have seen boulders floating in the sky,
    and every day a cloud comes in my door.
    Baguettes, instead of clouds, go drifting by.


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