Monday, February 1, 2016

Something Thoughtful

Nicholas Reid reflects in essay form on general matters and ideas related to literature, history, popular culture and the arts, or just life in general. You are free to agree or disagree with him.


One morning not too long ago, I had the pleasure of walking down the surf beach at Raglan, starting from its northern end – the end nearest the grassy strip that is the little airfield. Mount Karioi appealed to me. The waves dashing against the rocks appealed to me. The land on the other side of the estuary mouth appealed to me. It was a delightful place in that weather and at that time of day and in the company I was keeping (that of my wife, of course).

Then there was a moment of enchantment.

Ahead of me was a large piece of driftwood. As you might know before from this blog (look up the posting In Praise of Driftwood), I have looked before, and with interest, at driftwood on this same beach. But the large piece of driftwood I now saw was very special. From the distance at which I first noticed it, it had the exact same shape as a stately bird, long-necked and long-beaked and looking at the sky, perhaps wistfully, as the rest of its skein or flock disappeared across the horizon.

What a perfect natural work of art! ” I thought as I gazed at it from a distance of about fifty metres, moved by its swan-like or goose-like or teal-like poise.

But as I drew nearer and nearer the fine and poised bird dissolved. It became a rough piece of wood, eaten by the sea and its salt, burnt by the sun, with a rough and hole-ridden texture and looking like nothing in particular except a big piece of wood.

Is art made out of this sort of delusion, perhaps? Do we impose upon the natural world shapes that are not really there, giving them forms that do not belong to them, endowing them with feelings and qualities that come solely from our own brains?

In effect, do we see what we want to see, rather than seeing the material thing in front of us?

Some months back I read and reviewed A. Alvarez’s book about suicide The Savage God.  It was in that text that I, for the first time, heard the story of l’Inconnue de la Seine – the Unknown Woman of the Seine. The legend goes thus: sometime in the 1880s, the body of a young woman, probably a suicide and probably a teenager, was pulled out of the Seine. She was never identified. But when she was taken to the morgue, the chief attendant was so struck by her beauty that he at once had a death mask made of her. Everyone who saw the death mask was overcome by its rare beauty. Soon, many copies were made of the death mask. These copies appeared in the studios of artists and sculptors throughout France and then throughout the rest of Europe. For many, l’Inconnue de la Seine was the ideal of feminine beauty. People were intrigued by what appeared to be her mysterious smile, just as they were intrigued by the smile of the Mona Lisa. The artists were inspired by her when they painted portraits of other women. Poems and novels were written about her. Actresses tried to emulate her looks. There was speculation on whom exactly she was, and many fictional stories were woven of a great personal tragedy that had brought her to her end. Eventually, she had a strange posthumous fame when her face became the model for the face of the first CPR (artificial respiration) models.

Now nearly everything I have said about her was true.

There really was a rage for l’Inconnue de la Seine, and there really were numerous imaginative works written about her, by well-known literary figures, in the 1920s and 1930s.

But there is just one little snag to the tale.

Nobody has ever proven that the original story of the mask’s provenance is true; and the likelihood is that it is not. Anatomists have pointed out that the firmness of the mask’s skin suggests that the mask was made from a living young woman, and not from a corpse that had been floating in the water of the Seine for days. Further, from the 1880s to the 1920s when the legend was at its height, there are no records from any morgue in Paris referring to a young unknown woman pulled thus from the river and accorded a death mask. Precise dates and places and names are missing from the legend, as they are from all urban legends.

The consensus now is that the mask was taken from the face of a healthy, young and living teenage girl – indeed (though as untraced as the story of the love-struck morgue attendant), early in the rage for l’Inconnue de la Seine, there was a counter-narrative, which said the face belonged to the (living) teenage daughter of a Rhenish sculptor, who was astounded at the morbid fascination his daughter’s face aroused.

I step back from this, and look at photographs of the mask itself.

What do they depict?

An attractive young woman’s face, with firm skin and good cheekbones. Yes, the closed eyes do make her demure and (if you are so inclined) a little mysterious. She could be sleeping or she could be dead. But the expression on the lips (perhaps a smile, perhaps not) is clearly that of a living girl.

Is she the paragon of beauty? I think not. She looks like an ordinary and healthy young teenager.

So what happened to create this cultural phenomenon of l’Inconnue de la Seine? I think that, having heard the story of the love-struck morgue attendant and the death mask, and having imagined the story of the tragic suicide, those who looked at this attractive but ordinary face read into it the story they wanted to see. This was a mental illusion akin to the optical illusion that made me see a stately bird in a weather-beaten piece of wood.

This is indeed a “figure in the carpet” situation – or perhaps a “canals of Mars” situation. The fault, dear Brutus, is not in ourselves but in the structure of our brains.

We see what we choose to see.

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