Tuesday, December 18, 2012

Why Laokoön doesn’t scream

Laokoön is a Trojan priest of Poseidon mentioned at the beginning (Book II) of the Aeneid.   Of all the Trojans, Laokoön was most wary of the wooden horse left behind by the Achaean army, and Virgil has him speak the warning from which derives the immortal phrase “Beware of Greeks bearing gifts.”  A 2002 translation of the Aeneid by A.S. Kline renders Laokoön’s speech thusly:
…O unhappy citizens, what madness?
Do you think the enemy’s sailed away? Or do you think
any Greek gift’s free of treachery? Is that Ulysses’s reputation?
Either there are Greeks in hiding, concealed by the wood,
or it’s been built as a machine to use against our walls,
or spy on our homes, or fall on the city from above,
or it hides some other trick: Trojans, don’t trust this horse.
Whatever it is, I’m afraid of Greeks even those bearing gifts.
To underscore his point, the priest then drives a spear into the horse’s side.  Soon after, Laokoön and his two sons are strangled to death by a pair of giant sea serpents-- sent by Pallas Athena to punish him for defiling the sacred offering (or maybe just to shut him up).  Virgil describes his finals moments:
He strains to burst the knots with his hands,
his sacred headband drenched in blood and dark venom,
while he sends terrible shouts up to the heavens,
like the bellowing of a bull that has fled wounded,
from the altar, shaking the useless axe from its neck. 
Besides the Aenead, the most famous depiction of Laokoön and his sons is a marble tableau of their last moments which can be found at the Vatican museum.  Pliny the Elder (AD 23-79) refers to this work of art in Book XXXVI of his Historia Naturalis (discussing the natural history of stones).  He writes that the statue-- then housed in the palace of the Emperor Titus-- was carved from a single block of marble by three sculptors from the island of Rhodes named Agesander, Polydorus and Athenodorus; he calls it “a work that may be looked upon as preferable to any other production of the art of painting or statuary” (1906 translation by Karl Mayhoff).

Laokoön and His Sons on display at the Museo Vaticano (photo by Marie-Lan Nguyen found on wikipedia in public domain)
Throughout the centuries, numerous writers have been inspired by the story of the unfortunate priest, and many more-- perhaps influenced by Pliny’s high praise-- have written on the classical sculpture of Laokoön and His Sons (often referred to as “the Laokoön group”).

Italian poet Giacomo Leopardi (1798-1837),  in a passage from the Zibaldone (his journal of thoughts) probably written in 1819, mentions Laokoön as a representation of ancient suffering.  Consistent with his philosophical outlook at the time, Leopardi wrote that the ancients experienced misfortune differently than modern man.  They suffered more profoundly because they believed that happiness was attainable and that injustice, catastrophes, illness, injuries and bad luck were avoidable or unnecessary obstacles cutting them off from that happiness.  Meanwhile, modern man recognizes that suffering is inevitable and this lessens the pain of misfortune.  Indeed, Leopardi talks of modern man’s sweet surrender to tragedy, and he claims that even the sadness of a mother who loses a child might be bittersweet-- whereas for an ancient woman there was only despair and anguish.  Leopardi tells us that the difference stems from the fact that the ancients existed in a more natural state: they did not feel that they were living in the shadow of death.  Elsewhere, Leopardi wrote that the myths of the ancients hid from them grim reality.  But, modern man lives in the Age of Reason.  Thus “…the evolution of  sensibility and of melancholy  has come about above all due to advances in philosophy, in our knowledge of man, and the world, and the vanity of things and human suffering, knowledge that indeed produces this unhappiness that in nature man should never have known”(pp.78-79).

Another unique take on Laokoön is given us by William Blake (1757-1827), the mystical English poet/artist.  In 1826-1827, he completed a print where a detailed illustration of Laokoön and His Sons is surrounded by a jumble of text and labeled infra as “Jah and his two Sons Satan & Adam as they were copied from the Cherubim of Solomon’s Temple by three Rhodians & applied to Natural Fact or History of Ilium.”  Some of the writing above the illustration reads “Where any view of Money exists Art cannot be carried on, but War only” and “He repented that he had made Adam (of the Female, the Adamah [Adamah = earth]) & it grieved him at his heart.”  

Copy B of Laocoön by William Blake from private collection (larger image with notes on text found on wikisource)

But what I would like to focus on is Section 46 (Volume I, Book 3) of Schopenhauer’s World as Will and Representation (first edition 1818, second edition 1844) in which he attempts to answer the question “why Laokoön doesn’t scream.”   Here the philosopher does not refer to the legendary priest himself (for, as we can see supra, Virgil tells us that Laokoön wailed like a bull who was the victim of a botched sacrifice); rather he is talking about the famous marble trio of Laokoön and His Sons.  The pained expression on the father’s face might be interpreted as betraying the last reserves of physical strength he is employing in his vain attempt to free himself and his progeny, or the depletion of that strength and the realization that all is lost.  Whatever it is meant to convey, it is clear from looking at his half-opened mouth that he is not emptying his lungs in response to the torture he is enduring or letting loose that cry of anguish at the gratuitous punishment aimed at his family by the vengeful goddess.  Returning for a second to Leopardi, in the same entry cited above (on p.77), the poet writes that those ancients who suffered tragedies were seen as having incurred, in some way, the wrath of the gods, and thus they were likely to be shunned rather than pitied.

Before sharing his reasoning for why Laokoön isn’t shown screaming, Schopenhauer (1788-1860) gives us an overview of answers suggested by other authors.  A great many German writers of the late 18th-early 19th century penned treatises on the Laokoön group within the context of a larger conversation on aesthetics and the artistic ideal. 

Schopenhauer starts with Johann Winckelmann (1717-1768), the author of a seminal work in the study of Classical and ancient art, published in 1764, called Geschichte der Kunst des Alterthums (History of Art of Antiquity).  Winckelmann claims Laokoön is an example of the ancient hero who nobly, stoically struggles against any outward expression of his pain.  This choice in artistic representation has been praised in other contexts (e.g. in regards to drama) as heightening pathos; we are more deeply moved by the character who does not cry but attempts to hold back her tears.  Schopenhauer, however, rejects this explanation for Laokoön’s silence.  As he puts it:
 …we would all scream in his situation; and so nature in fact demands.  For with intense physical pain and the sudden onset of the greatest bodily anxiety, all reflection, which might possibly induce a state of silent endurance, is entirely suppressed from consciousness, and nature gives vent to itself through screaming; thereby, it simultaneously expresses pain and anxiety, summons the rescuer, and terrifies the attacker. [all translations of Schopenhauer come from World as Will and Presentation, trans. Robert E. Aquila, Pearson: 2008.]
Gotthold Lessing (1729-1781) also argues against Winckelmann’s suggestion, in his 1766 work entitled Laokoön: An Essay on the Limits of Painting and Poetry (translation by Sir Robert Phillimore, Bart.).  As evidenced in numerous poems, plays, & co., the Greeks and Romans did not view cries and screams as ignoble; rather they recognized screaming as a natural reaction to bodily pain.  Lessing explains that the reason the sculptors did not depict Laokoön screaming (as did Virgil) comes down to a fundamental difference between poetry and painting/sculpture.  In the plastic and pictorial arts, beauty trumps all.  Thus the depiction of agony must be softened so as not to mar classical beauty with the hideous distortions we would see on the face of a man whose mouth is wide open, in the midst of a howl.  In the visual arts, says Lessing, it is the combination of beauty and suffering  which excites our sympathies.  On a related note, Lessing claims that a scream is a fleeting act and that rendering such a transitory action as static and permanent in a sculpture is displeasing.  To scream is natural, but a Laokoön frozen mid-scream for all time might appear ugly, womanish or comical.

In contrast to this last claim, Schopenhauer cites Goethe (1749-1832) who, in 1798, also wrote a short essay “On Laokoön” (found in Goethe on Art, translated by John Gage)According to Goethe, part of what makes the Laokoön group so powerful is that-- like the flash of a camera-- it captures the trio mid-motion at a precise moment in time.  We see Laokoön  himself in the middle of performing a double action as he tries to wrestle free from the snake and to simultaneously avoid being bitten.  We can see the head of a serpent at his side, and Goethe claims the sculpture captures the exact moment that the serpent bites into his flesh.  Thus the contortions of Laokoön’s body may further represent the body’s reflex reaction to the sharp pain.  Another reason the group is so exceptional, in Goethe’s eyes, is that it brings together the depiction of corporeal and intellectual pain.  In Laokoön’s face, Goethe sees “inquietude, fear, terror, paternal affection… .”  Goethe himself does not address the issue of why Laokoön isn’t screaming, but his treatment suggests it may be because the priest hasn’t had time to scream yet or that the contorted position of his body would not allow it.  He might also say that the sculptors chose an expression which connotes a more complex range of emotions.

A third explanation is given by Alois Hirt (1759-1837), an art historian also mentioned by Hegel in his Lectures on Aesthetics (given between 1818-1829).  Hirt’s theory is that art should depict the “Charakteristischen,” which according to Hegel means representing that which is essential to its subject and excluding anything superfluous.  Regarding Laokoön , Hirt says he doesn’t scream because he is depicted at the moment of his death.  If there was any screaming it’s over now, as he succumbs to asphyxiation or venom.

Schopenhauer’s thoughts are closest to Lessing’s.  According to him, Laokoön  does not scream because the essence of a scream is in the sound.  “One could not produce a screaming Laokoön  from marble, but only one with his mouth agape and fruitlessly endeavoring to scream, a Laokoön  whose voice remains stuck in his throat….”  If it were possible to capture the essence of a scream, then depicting the mouth thrown open and the distortion of facial features that go along with it, would be allowed (if not required), but, as it stands, in the plastic and pictorial arts, the representation of a scream is “entirely foreign and impossible.”  Thus, it would make no sense for the sculptor to sacrifice beauty while “…the screaming itself, along with its effect  on one’s spirit, remains absent.”   
The Scream by Edvard Munch, copies on display Norwegian National Museum and Munch Museum both in Oslo (image of National Museum copy found on wikipedia)
Schopenhauer’s assertion that representing a scream in painting or sculpture is impossible probably brings to mind the work of the Norwegian artist Edvard Munch (1863-1944) which he entitled The Scream of Nature and which is commonly referred to as simply The Scream (1893).  Does this Expressionist painting capture the essence of a scream on canvas?  It would make for a good story if Munch intended his work to be an answer to Schopenhauer’s challenge, however Munch himself stated that he did not read Schopenhauer until years after he composed his Scream.

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