Thursday, October 7, 2010

Der Wald by Gunter Grass and Emotion and Language

At Alex Galleries in Washington, D.C., the works of Gunter Grass are on display. (Click here to see them all....don't be surprised by the "mushrooms", however. Oh, mon ami, they are exactly what you think they are.)

One of the images, which I've included at right , is "Der Wald", a lithograph from 1984. 'Der Wald' means forest, and while we see just one tree--a gnarled, arboreal Leviathan--it might be a forest of words that Grass' title alludes to. Here is a tree whose protective texture is not produced by hardened cellulose, but by a flowing pattern of language, which (at least in this image) I cannot make out very clearly. The beginnings of tender branches shoot outward from the broad trunk as single, slender sentences that reach upward for light and recognition.

To a certain degree, there is a Northern Renaissance feel to Grass' tree....In Grass' work, I can see the tortured shape of Christ as he appears in Matthais Grunewald's triptych, the Isenheim Altarpiece. And although Christianity's dissemination began by way of images (fish, for one) and although the religion has been so dependent upon symbols and icons, it is still defined by way of parables and correspondence, whose basis are words.

John 1: 1-14 "In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God."

I remember, in a college course called Senior Value Studies, the theology professor who headed the class asked me (and I paraphrase here) if words preceed emotion. Does emotion exist without words? ThenI thought, as I still do, that of course emotion exists without the ability to express its detail or depth. Babies feel anger and desire and have no words to express themselves. Therefore, they cry. So, too, with children--who fight each other when they are angry. Of course, this extends to adults who have limited capacity to express themselves. (Think of Melville's Billy Budd, who could not defend himself with words and therefore physically lashed out at his accuser, an action that worsened Budd's already difficult situation).

Without language do feelings exist? Of course. But without language can they be adequately understood, examined, measured? Of course not. Do words affect emotion? Absolutely. Still, I started to think of an existence where both emotion and words are irrelevant, and I came up with this. Thanks, Gunter. Looking at your pictures has started something new:

"Belinda had not been born with the gift. Nor had her parents. They were simple country people: the mother’s edges were worn smooth with running the house and dealing with the children who tugged at her stained apron and coarse-ticked skirt; Belinda’s father was a laborer, who traveled to town every day to work in the mill. His fingers were swollen, knobbed, and arthritic. When he spread them, they would not straighten. His pale gray eyes looked down, watering, the lower lid heavy with time rather than emotion. He was a man of few, if any words. His responses were guttural or composed of soundless shrugs and single nods. Words for him, were superfluous. Words were used to express need alone: hunger, thirst, but never desire or emotion. Feelings were largely irrelevant to his daily life.

“Feelings are a luxury for the rich,” said Belinda’s uncle, out of the blue, lifting a chipped glass and inspecting the sediment that floated like pipe tobacco in the amber-colored liquid. Belinda’s uncle appeared often when she was young, too young to help her mother but old enough to know to stay out of the way. The uncle was waiting for his brother to come home. His chores on in his brother’s barn were done, and he was content to drink his brother’s liquor and pest his brother’s wife from three o’clock onward.

Belinda’s mother expressed herself largely by glances, angry or sullen, rarely loving. Even rarer was her use of words. A grimace passed across her features. “Feeling,” she said, spitting the word at the floor as if it were a sliver of rotten potato. “You can’t eat feelings or pay for flour with feelings. Feelings don’t wash clothes or put gas in the car. What do you care about feelings?”

“I suppose I can’t afford to have any,” he chuckled and sipped his whiskey, laying down the glass hard.

“Feelings are for idlers,” she said and was silent. She was peeling potatoes, expertly unspooling thin ribbons of their brown lizard skin into the sink.

So lessoned, Belinda lived in a largely silent world,and eventually found that words came to her not as one long cord of fluent phonics, but untethered, even broken. "
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