Throughout artistic evolution, individuals have frequently returned to several themes upon which they continue to develop and contribute. One such motif which mirrors the inner feelings of the artist is that of the dark. A reflection of the individual’s perception of themselves or the world which surrounds them, it remains a broad area of investigation but one which often has had a profound psychological impact upon our experience. The outcome of these explorations can be both fascinating and haunting in how they transpose the inner workings of the solitary mind to that of the communal experience of the realized artwork.
In his A Philosophical Inquiry into the Origin of Our Ideas of the Sublime and Beautiful (1756), Edmund Burke identifies several aspects of what we deem to be the sublime, the recognition of a kind of beautiful terror. Darkness is pivotal to the nature of this concept. It not only invokes greater curiosity than lightness but also speaks more to our psychological connection to the world. Obviously there is its equation with death, but darkness also references the unknown, all which remains obscure to us, and therefore a consistent avenue of introspection.
If we take into account this conception of the dark as that which is obscure than James Joyce’s colossal final work Finnegans Wake (1939) is perhaps the most eloquent example. Begun after the publication of his landmark Ulysses (1922), the chronicle of one day in the life of Dublin, Finnegans Wake is an evolution upon it’s predecessor. The stream of consciousness writing method Joyce employed for the former finds itself completely free of constraints, left approaching a grammatical and logical breakdown of both writing and language. “If Ulysses was a book about daytime, Finnegans Wake was a book of the night. Dream and riddle, myth-making, myth-breaking, syllepses, syllogisms, naturalisms, supernaturalism, fabulism…” 1 Joyce alluded to dreams and Irish legend in a complex and interlocking pattern of verbal puns. Lauded and decried alike, the work has largely remained misunderstood, which may be fair given its references to some sixty languages as well as unique ones which can only be termed as Joycean. What makes Finnegan Wake so particularly interesting is its embrace of the unknown. The author, who’s rapidly failing eyesight had reached one tenth of normal vision by this time, often worked by candlelight to the point of exhaustion over the sixteen years he devoted to the piece. Joyce was also an artist who dared to elevate the mundane to the level of the heroic. His seemingly non-sensical construction is partly the result of his motivations to explore a realm to which no one had ventured. Most poetically however Finnegans Wake may be seen as an eloquent reflection of Joyce himself. Nearly blind, equally infamous as famous, and collapsing under the weight of his own genius, Joyce was attempting to create something which echoed his deepest thoughts and perceptions. A work which cyclically engages all of experience and becomes phenomenal through its own means. Perhaps the unadulterated nature of his stream of consciousness was the perfect vehicle for a man working with an imminent sense that the temporal world was nearing its end but the eternal within reach. He becomes linguist, storyteller, and medium, a creator of a strange and unknown world, but one which harkens to the experience of this one. Finnegans Wake is certainly a book of the dark, the outpourings of the crafter of the obscure mirror held up to the arena of the world.
Francisco Goya’s late Black Paintings herald the beginning of the Modernist fascination with the darker aspects of humanity. While predecessors such as Hieronymus Bosch and William Blake provide a clear lineage to the subject, Goya is the artist who truly makes the genre his own. In his later years a deaf and increasingly anti-humanist Goya occupied a two-story house on the outskirts of Madrid nicknamed Quinta del Sordo or “deaf-man’s villa”. The large interior walls became the carrier for a series of murals that the painter never intended for display. The Black Paintings comprise a range of subjects, but all are united through a singular dark and horrific underpinning. Saturn Devouring His Son (1819) is the most well known and perhaps for good reason. The gruesome image of the giant cannibalizing his progeny frozen in a muddy and gestural chiaroscuro is not easily forgotten. Another scene, Fight With Clubs (n.d.), portrays two young boys about to bludgeon each other set against a frigid cerulean sky that heightens the drama. It is clear that the events surrounding the aging Goya’s life were informing these works. He had suggested the dark before and experienced it directly with his Third of May 1808 (1812-14). The horrors of the Peninsular War (1808-14) had left Goya even more withdrawn and skeptical of humanity than he had been prior. Now in his seventies, the painter was not only deaf but also suffering from what is since known as Vogt-Koyanagi-Harada, a syndrome that may have affected his vision and possibly induced delirium. Added to this was the constant fear in his last years regarding his prior position as royal court painter and the instable political situation of his contemporary Spain. His illnesses coupled with his ever-increasing paranoia and hostility appear to reflect the content of the Black Paintings rather well. Francisco Goya is often considered the last of the old masters as well as the first of the moderns and his art resolves this through his use of classic models while still engaging the events of his own time. He truly was the first modern artist to sincerely embrace the darker side of human nature and thus commence a tradition that is still strong in the Post Modern period.
(Francisco Goya, Witches Sabbath, 1820-1823)
“Through every forest, above the trees.
Within my stomach, scraped off my knees.
I drink the honey inside your hive.
You are the reason I stay alive.” 2
When The Downward Spiral was released in 1994, it signaled more than the progression of NINE INCH NAILS and sole composer Trent Reznor’s entrance into the popular music mainstream. It also heralded the foundation of a new synthesis of musical subject matter: the dark, yet decidedly Pop. While Reznor had achieved critical and club success with Pretty Hate Machine (1989), his newest incantation had cemented his place as a visionary. The second single and most noteworthy inclusion on the album was Closer.
Arguably the dark masterpiece of Industrial music, a genre Reznor himself refuses to be categorized by, “Closer” is more than a hypnotic dance piece, although it remains a standard. Part of a larger concept album, it remains one of the sincerest musical reflections of both the self and its moribund manifestations. In keeping with the continuity of the album, Reznor recorded it while occupying the infamous house where actress Sharon Tate was murdered by Charles Manson’s followers. 3 The impact seems to have been clear as the demons of both Reznor’s psyche and the locale’s history infect the tracks.
As much as language is a poor substitute for visual art, it is a particularly mediocre equivalent for music. That stated, I have always identified with Reznor’s compositions and their lyrics as metaphors for his personal relationship to his art. Not necessarily always the case, but often NIN’s references to drugs and sexuality align themselves with the self-induced narcotic of creation. Words of course need not end at their face value and the symbolic connotations of sacrificing yourself to your passion(s) are those that any artist can understand. I will refrain from elaborating further and only mention in summation that with “Closer” Reznor has spoken to the transformative experience of the interior made outward and made the adage “beauty from pain” not an empty cliché but a reality.
(Stills from Mark Romanek’s 1994 music video for “Closer”. Visual motifs include references to Francis Bacon’s beef carrion and Joel-Peter Witkin’s human cornucopia.)
“Beauty is found in places you least expect it, and sometimes in death.” –Sam Mendes 4
It is rare for a successful contemporary film to reach the truly poetic, but the collaboration of writer Alan Ball and director Sam Mendes for American Beauty (1999) was able achieve this brilliantly. “Lester Burnham”, both the film’s subject and narrator, introduces us to and later concludes the story of his life, which is essentially as conformist and passionless as the critics of suburbia have always claimed. Throughout the narrative’s progression we discover the means by which Lester has fallen into his sorry state as well as those which ultimately liberate him from it.
What the pairing of Ball and Mendes have so eloquently conveyed is that our antihero is not some isolated, pathetic loser approaching middle age, but a reflection of who we are or may become. This is precisely why Lester’s story is so gripping, because it is so inescapably ordinary. A recurring motif of the film is Lester’s and his life’s insignificance, which Mendes has beautifully visualized through the recorded images of a plastic bag caught in a gust of wind so that it “dances” for minutes on end. This is revealed through Lester’s neighbor and amateur videographer “Ricky Fitts”, who is extraordinarily sensitive to even the most seemingly trite manifestations of beauty in the world.
Now as Lester begins to transform his life from the banal pseudo-existence it was into something more closely resembling what he had imagined in his younger days, the supporting players begin to take their respective roles in relation to his path. They become counterpoints to his actions and in the process “struggle viciously – and hilariously – to escape the middle-class doldrums, [through which] the film also evinces a real and ever more stirring compassion.” 5 While Lester pursues this new direction he increasingly garners the freedom and gratification that was absent in his previous state and it would appear that his recent persona is embarking on a fruitful new course, emblematic of what Heidegger described as a being-towards-death. The closing moments of the film reveal however that happiness was never absent from this man’s life, but that he just didn’t know where to look for it. When for the first time asked how he is doing, he has an intense moment of realization to which he responds “I’m great.” As Lester reflects on this at his kitchen table while gazing into a snapshot of his family suspended in a moment of joy we slowly follow the camera’s pan only to in an instant discover that he has been killed. In Mendes’ compelling final sequence, we see the memories flash before our hero’s eyes at the point of death. Gone are the insecurities and trivial concerns, and all that is left is the beauty of that man’s heart and love for his life. When Ricky finds Lester, he again is able to recognize the extraordinary beauty of this individual’s last moments. And as Lester’s own life lingers in his mind for time infinite, the closing narration speaks to all of us:
“I guess I could be pretty pissed off about what happened to me,
but it’s hard to stay mad when there’s so much beauty in the world.
Sometimes I feel like I’m seeing it all at once and it’s too much.
My heart fills up like a balloon that’s about to burst.
And then I remember to relax…
and stop trying to hold on to it.
And then it flows through me like rain,
and I can’t feel anything but gratitude…
for every single moment…
of my stupid little life.
You have no idea what I’m talking about, I’m sure.
But don’t worry.
You will someday.”
1. Edna Obrien, James Joyce, p.137
2. http://www.seeklyrics.com/lyrics/Nine-Inch-Nails/Closer.html, April 1, 2007
3. http://music.yahoo.com/ar-259781-bio–Nine-Inch-Nails?ev=30672468, April 1, 2007
4. American Beauty, Dream Works DVD, 2000, Audio Commentary
5. New York Times review, Janet Maslin, September 15, 1999.