Sunday, September 26, 2010

Autumnal Reflections, I

Horace, Schubert, Baldung: Memento mori

The sentiment of memento mori or, remember you will die, has probably its strongest association with the Epicurean notion of ataraxia, or imperturbability. It's most beautiful expression is certainly in the third poem of Horace's second book of odes:

Aequam memento rebus in arduis
seruare mentem, non secus in bonis
  ab insolenti temperatam
    laetitia, moriture Delli,
seu maestus omni tempore uixeris,
seu te in remoto gramine per dies
  festos reclinatum bearis
    interiore nota Falerni.

Horace in particular seems to suffer terribly in translation, thus I refrain from doing so and kindly refer you to the "crib" translation in Michael Gilleland's thorough discussion here. The Roman concept was characterized by a forbearance of suffering and an admonition against hubris. Such a concept beautifully compliments and reinforces the sentiments of carpe diem and nunc est bibendum, now is [the time] for drinking, both of which also received potent expression in Horace (1.1 and 1.37, respectively.) Don't torment yourself trying to discover the future, don't trust it. Yet there are things worth celebrating. Now this is no specific philosophy, but a practical and general one of aphorisms meant to inform decisions and temper life's pangs, little and great alike. This temperate state is reflected in the structure of the opening stanzas: the separation of memento and moriture places the latter in the center of the ideas, intensifying the preceding admonition and casting a shadow over the second stanza. Horace's beautiful imagery is all tempered by the fact that we enjoy such things only at the permission of the Fates, and that ultimately it is the heir who enjoy the riches. No matter what station you enjoyed in life, everyone is equal victim to Orcus. So when the poplar and the pine make some shade for you, sit with your choice wine and enjoy it.

What culminates in a manly composure and a temperate serenity in the Roman world, though, gets quite different treatment in later eras. Two of them seem to be particularly close kin. In the hands of Hans Baldung the concept takes on a morbid character. A student of the great Albrecht Dürer, Baldung, writing during the German Renaissance captured and emphasized the sense of loss of spirit, of decay, of being doggedly pursed and drained of the life energy. Look at the horror of his, Death and the Maiden (c.1518-20.) (right) Notice the disturbing quasi-musculature of death and also his embrace, caressing a particularly tender area with his left hand and supporting her head and tresses with his right. Their faces make a horrid scene: an embrace subverted. She's pale, "white as leprosy" to borrow from Coleridge, and most curious of all, more saddened and aghast than afraid.


Left, in The Knight, the Young Girl, and Death (1505) Baldung emphasizes the pursuit. Here the arresting palette generates the shock more than any actual sense of motion. The foreground grass receives more detail than the horse, whose tail is in just one bold stroke, but draws your attention. The eye moves from the man to the woman, to the tail, to the leftmost center: the frightful contrast of the skull chomping at her hem. Here death, falling apart and leaking entrails, struggles for the woman. The flashy prince, with the help of his steed, looks as if he might succeed. . . today.

Romantic composer Franz Schubert would pick up these two themes in nearly identical terms about three hundred years later. In Death and the Maiden, Schubert sets Matthias Claudius' poem to  music which seizes us with us somberness and apparent simplicity. The theme of death, slow and soft and without large intervals, is all the more disturbing for its relaxed nature, a nature it shares with the Baldung's death-lover above. "Softly shall you sleep in my arms" he ends.

Der Tod und das Mädchen, D.531

In Die Erlkönig Schubert takes up the pursuit theme which was present but less physical in the second Baldung we looked at above. This is a triumph of characterization both for Goethe and Schubert. The "elven" king is ever calm, his attention roused from its dryadic slumber by the presence of the child. Schubert makes the flight from death, the incessant clack of horse-hooves, the focus of the piece. Our horror intensifies as the elf king appeals directly to the child, "softly promising to him" and again at the child's increasingly terrified cries.  The final cadence ends the piece with a startling sense of finality.

Die Erlkönig, D.328

Every era, every people, every person even has his own response to the urgency created by mortality. The indomitable character praised in the Roman view was most appropriate for such a sober and practical people, and Horace's cautions are not surprising for a people who, at the time, endured much political uncertainty. Baldung's audience too knew strife through plague, war, and schism. The Romantic reaction is somewhat curious and inverse: a reminder despite success. Though not over war or strife, man had conquered nature with industrialization, but not death, as the supernatural nature of Schubert's songs remind us.

Horace's odes emphasized order with each thought, each word in exquisite balance. Baldung emphasized certain a morbid curiosity at the contrasts of generation and corruption. Schubert's musical expression gave new strength to the frightful sensuous and the shock of immediacy. They all emphasized the poignancy one's ultimate end bestows on every moment.

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