A Time of Gifts (Fermor cont.)

» July 22nd, 2019

When no buildings were in sight, I was back in the Dark Ages. But the moment a farmhouse or a village impinged, I was in the world of Peter Brueghel.

Fermor continues to push the connection between representation and reality in the most intriguing ways. It’s something of a motif in his uneven but charming book. His reverential reference to Brueghel really pleased me. I wrote my college application essay (mind you, decades ago) on Brueghel’s “The Fall of Icarus.” It was a writing experience I remember with a certain amount of high schoolish nostalgia. (The fact that my son, now the same age as I was then, is currently fixated on another painting, “The Arnofini Portrait” by Jan Van Eyck, only sweetens the memory and moment.)


Art is reality–this point should be noted, if not tattooed into the brain. It represents but, in representing, it is. So art, in the most uncomplicated way, is real. I think Brueghel blended reality and representation so well due to the insane technical skill underscoring his work. According to a recent New York Review of Books piece, his virtuosity was peerless. Each painting is, according to author, “plausibly the greatest painting ever made.” Love that.

Perhaps as evidence that Brueghel fused art and reality so perfectly, poets have swept in to ostensibly usher his work into a poetic netherworld, to deem it beyond reality. But his painting won’t abandon the grit of life. W.H. Auden’ s “Musee de Beaux Arts” exemplifies this paradox with brilliance. Reading it, I cannot help feel how poetry, painting, and the world in front of me–all the suffering and pleasure therein– is, despite the ceaseless effort of modern bourgeois categorization, a convergence immune to fantasy or metaphysical flight, permitting us to feel it as real while also sailing calmly on.

Here’s Auden, best read very slowly:

About suffering they were never wrong,
The Old Masters: how well they understood
Its human position; how it takes place
While someone else is eating or opening a window or just
walking dully along;
How, when the aged are reverently, passionately waiting
For the miraculous birth, there always must be
Children who did not specially want it to happen, skating
On a pond at the edge of the wood:
They never forgot
That even the dreadful martyrdom must run its course
Anyhow in a corner, some untidy spot
Where the dogs go on with their doggy
life and the torturer’s horse
Scratches its innocent behind on a tree.

In Breughel’s Icarus, for instance: how everything turns away
Quite leisurely from the disaster; the ploughman may
Have heard the splash, the forsaken cry,
But for him it was not an important failure; the sun shone
As it had to on the white legs disappearing into the green
Water; and the expensive delicate ship that must have seen
Something amazing, a boy falling out of the sky,
had somewhere to get to and sailed calmly on.

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