“A World of Tears”: Rubens, Nietzsche, and tragic ecphrasis

by Rafaël Newman

Morgan Meis, The Drunken Silenus: On Gods, Goats, and the Cracks in Reality (Slant Books, 2020)

Peter Paul Rubens, “The Drunken Silenus” (1616/1617)

Reviewing a new translation of the Iliad, the military historian Edward Luttwak speculates about the enduring popularity of the ancient epic:

Why are our contemporaries so keen on buying and presumably reading the Iliad’s Iron Age reminiscence of Bronze Age combat? Publishers certainly view it as a paying proposition: at least twenty new English-language translations have been published since 1950, not counting ones from private presses. In Greece, as in Italy for students of the liceo classico, it is a compulsory school text (several modern Greek versions also serve as cribs), but why are the passengers at Terminal 2 in San Francisco buying the English versions? Uniformed and desert-booted soldiers are a common sight in US airports – the uniform secures lounge access and early boarding – and it is a fair surmise that warriors and would-be warriors, these days more often college-educated, are war-book buyers, of which the Iliad is the echt and ur. Some of course – nasty fellows – would widen the explanation by seeing Americans as a whole as war-lovers, hence war-book addicts, hence Iliad buyers. That’s lame to begin with, for there are countless ways of getting that fix much more easily than by reading 15,693 lines of hieratic verse bound to offend military history buffs, because of … the extreme, pervasive emotionalism – all the weeping wives of other war books are outdone by the floods of tears of Homer’s greatest warriors…

For the ancient heroes in Homer’s epic – Achilles, Agamemnon, Odysseus – are indeed often to be found weeping, whether in conventionally lachrymose settings, such as over the death of a comrade in battle or at a funeral, or when enraged and frustrated at the indignities visited on them, or, signally, when recalling their own brilliant past and lamenting their impending mortality, and subsequent obscurity.

Tearfulness was evidently central to the armature of the traditional hero handed on from the Greek culture to the Latin, so that by the time Vergil came to write his epic of the founding of Rome, some six centuries after the Homeric verses were set down in writing, he has his Trojan hero Aeneas, the legendary founder of Rome, weep as he makes landfall at his crew’s last stop but one before their destined Italian homeland:

Here in this grove

a strange sight met his eyes and calmed his fears

for the first time. Here, for the first time,

Aeneas dared to hope he had found some haven,

for all his hard straits, to trust in better days.

For awaiting the queen, beneath the great temple now,

exploring its features one by one, amazed at it all,

the city’s splendor, the work of rival workers’ hands

and the vast scale of their labors—all at once he sees,

spread out from first to last, the battles fought at Troy,

the fame of the Trojan War now known throughout the world,

Atreus’ sons and Priam—Achilles, savage to both at once.

Aeneas came to a halt and wept, and “Oh, Achates,”

he cried, “is there anywhere, any place on earth

not filled with our ordeals? There’s Priam, look!

Even here, merit will have its true reward…

even here, the world is a world of tears

and the burdens of mortality touch the heart…”

Sunt lacrimae rerum, sighs Aeneas cryptically – there are tears of things, or “the world is a world of tears,” in Robert Fagles’s elegant rendering. The site of Aeneas’s celebrated weeping – Carthage – is ironic, since his stormy affair with its mythical Queen Dido presages the conflict that will embroil their descendants in the historical future. But the immediate trigger for his ostensibly un-warrior-like display of melancholy (which the classically trained reader will nevertheless recognize as a proof of pedigree) is even more significant: a mural depicting the battlefield exploits of the Greeks and Trojans in the weeks leading up to the fall of Troy, the subject of the Iliad; the return of the Greek heroes to their homes, the subject of the Odyssey; and the dispersion of the Trojan survivors, foremost among them Prince Aeneas himself, the subject of the very poem in which the scene is unfolding.

Woe as a response not only to immediate personal injury or loss but also to the evocation of the “burdens of mortality” in visual representation is the unspoken theme of Morgan Meis’s The Drunken Silenus: On Gods, Goats, and the Cracks in Reality, an art historical-cum-philosophical exegesis. During a sojourn in Antwerp, and despite his initial antipathy to the subject, Meis became intrigued by Peter Paul Rubens’s ties to the city, and by the 17th-century painter’s repeated depiction of a certain motif from Greek mythology: Silenus, the drunken tutor of the god Bacchus, whom Rubens may have first seen in “Bacchus and Ariadne”, a painting by Titian he viewed while visiting Italy. Meis set out to reconstruct the Flemish Master’s biography, and to elicit the causes of his “minor obsession” with the figure of Silenus; his new book presents the fruits of that research, as well as a meditation on Rubens’s putative themes, and their reverberations in the modern era.

Titian, “Bacchus and Ariadne” (1522/1523)

In Titian’s early 16th-century painting, as Meis reads it, the somnolent Silenus, who echoes the alert god’s posture as he is carried behind him by his followers, serves principally as a counterpoint to Bacchus, caught “midleap” as he springs from his chariot to console the abandoned Princess Ariadne: a still contrast to the hyperactive god, the tranquil pole in a kinetic chiaroscuro. Silenus, however, is renowned not only for his drunkenness but also for the pessimistic truth of human existence he is said to have revealed at the insistence of King Midas: “The secret, Silenus said, is that it would have been better not to have been born at all. The next best thing for man, Silenus added, would be to die quickly.”

Silenus, Meis knows, appears in the Homeric hymns as well as in Ovid’s Metamorphoses, and it is entirely possible that Rubens, according to Meis a would-be classicist, came across him in the pages of one of the “leather-bound volumes lying around his studio.” But, writes Meis, “I prefer to think of Rubens being struck dumb while looking at that painting by Titian”; and it is this imaginary aesthetic filiation, of profound emotion aroused by the consumption of visual art used to produce more visual art, itself capable of eliciting a state of mournful apprehension in its subsequent viewers, that Meis will enact for the readers of his essay.

Meis himself is not a visual artist, but rather an essayist and the author of a novel. “I’m interested in looking at visual art and thinking about visual art as a stimulus for the creation of more art,” he has said in interview, “in this case literary art.” Rubens in Italy, as Meis reconstructs him, gazes at Titian’s painting of Silenus borne along in a drunken stupor in the train of Bacchus’s followers, and returns to Antwerp to create his own Silenus: in several renditions, but most famously, and centrally to Meis’s study, in his early 17th-century “Drunken Silenus”, now at the Alte Pinakothek in Munich. Meis’s own reaction to the Flemish Master’s painting is not visual, but literary, the verbal rendering of a visual subject which is known to rhetoricians as ecphrasis and has been practised by such predecessors as W.H. Auden, William Carlos Williams – and of course by Vergil, in the “sunt lacrimae rerum” scene in Book 1 of the Aeneid, and before him by Homer himself, in his depiction of the Shield of Achilles in Book 18 of the Iliad, which stands at the origin of a tradition that has consistently associated the ecphrastic mode with the epic form.

Meis’s avowed forebear in the woefully ecphrastic response to the figure of Silenus, however, is none of these. Instead, it is Friedrich Nietzsche, who confronts the drunken tutor in The Birth of Tragedy, citing his appearance in a text of Aristotle’s, and extracts from him Silenus’s central, secret truth. Here is Meis’s enthusiastically tendentious account of Nietzsche’s Silenus:

It is the Silenus of Rubens’s painting that speaks in Nietzsche’s work. It is that specific Silenus, the one that Rubens rescued from the background of Titian’s painting and restored to his full Greek strangeness. The drunk staggering across the scene with the pinching satyrs cackling along at his side. That Silenus, on the move, barely able to remember who he is. Rubens and Nietzsche would have understood one another about that.

For Nietzsche as for Rubens, Meis writes, Silenus represents more than the simple nihilism of his infamous gnomic utterance (the best thing for man is not to have been born; the second best is to die young): for Meis, Silenus’s stuporous inebriation, presumably following a Dionysian orgy, is the only appropriate response to the absurdity of the human condition, caught between the desire for “ecstatic oneness with the surrounding universe” and “the pain of being an individual when all that matters is the whole”.

Nietzsche’s project in his 1872 work – which appeared 14 years later in a revised edition, bearing the new subtitle Hellenism and Pessimism – is to identify the Dionysian element in the ancient Greek theatrical form, and indeed in Greek thought in general, which had been conventionally lauded for its adherence to reason. “All this talk (Nietzsche realized),” writes Meis,

of the measured and balanced Greek mind was sloppy. No, there is turmoil. Nietzsche saw it because he was willing to look. He didn’t listen to anybody else, the experts, the other scholars. He just took a look. He made himself into a scholar so that he could take a look on his own. Nietzsche saw something awful and essential. He saw a root sense of life that bubbled and boiled to no specific purpose. The sheer drive of existence. The sheer expression of a life drive and a death drive. Even that doesn’t explain it very well. It is hard to give words to the thing that Nietzsche saw, the mad, empty discharge of life spoke to him out of that ancient Greek tragic sense, the one that produced the tragedies. The one that celebrated Dionysian rites in secret caves. The one that pulled animals apart with its bare hands. The one that had the voice of a goat, the bleat of a goat.

The “truth” of human existence discovered by Nietzsche in the early 1870s, in Meis’s telling, is that its very primitive urgency places it beyond the bounds of traditional morality; and, as the Franco-Prussian War came to a head during The Birth of Tragedy’s original composition, and the nascent German Reich looked like it might triumph over the effete French empire, Nietzsche saw the “forces of Real Life” massing to remake the world in its “historical destiny”. The “mad, empty discharge of life” as celebrated in the woods by Dionysus and his maenads, rutting and killing like beasts, and witnessed by his ostensibly civilized tutor Silenus, drinking himself into a stupor to avoid thinking about the awfulness of his knowledge of human futility – that discharge, that “Dionysian horde”, Meis maintains, is what Nietzsche imagined battering at the walls of the besieged city of Wörth in 1870, as the Prussians assailed the French in the famously contested border region of Alsace.

Nietzsche was to drastically revise this youthful jingoism in his re-edition of The Birth of Tragedy in the 1880s. Older, sicker, having broken with Wagner and now engaged in “self-criticism”, Nietzsche has grown disillusioned with the outcome of the Franco-Prussian War and the failure of the German Empire to live up to his Dionysian expectations. As the fin-de-siècle approached, the German “thunderclap” Nietzsche had been expecting in the 1870s had long since ceased to echo. (Meis borrows the heroic image of the “thunderclap”, unironically, from the sublimely ironic Heine, who had warned against just such a thing, aesthetically and politically, some 40 years earlier.)

Or perhaps it hadn’t ceased to echo, writes Meis, neither in Nietzsche’s time nor in our own, and evokes the march of martial folly linking the Battle of Wörth in 1870 to an earlier encounter there, almost a century past at that point, between the French revolutionary forces and the allies of the ancien régime; linking it forward to the Cold War; and then stretching it further back again, to the very events that had preoccupied Aeneas, and moved him to tears as he viewed their depiction on the walls of Carthage:

The Franco-Prussian War is, essentially, World War I in its first manifestation and World War I is, of course, also World War II and World War II, you could say, hasn’t ever really stopped either, and none of this could have started without the Franco-Prussian War since, if you’d like to be audacious about it, you could trace a line from the Battle of Troy all the way to the Battle of Wörth—which, if you allow yourself to think about it for a moment, raises the fascinating and terrifying thought that we have never even finished fighting the Battle of Troy.

Peter Paul Rubens, “Two Satyrs” (1618/1619)

“If you’d like to be audacious about it”: and Meis is nothing if not audacious. On occasion, indeed, he is virtually puerile in the forced scurrility of his turns of phrase (“Maybe it is all just one fucking war”) and the scatological language ventriloquized for such disparate figures as Nietzsche and for Rubens’s eye-contact-making satyr, both of whom are made to utter the words “holy shit!” as they realize a central truth. But this profanity is of a piece with Meis’s evidently genuine advocacy of the central truth hit upon by both the philologist-philosopher and the painter: that human life is a scarcely bearable absurdity, an unceasing campaign fought vaingloriously against the realization that it would have been best not to have been born in the first place; and thus glorifying the second-best option, dying young, which it stages for its “heroes” on one long unbroken chain of battlefields; which it paints on the walls of cities not yet besieged and conquered for the survivors of such battles to weep over; and which it presents to the reader (or hearer) of their adventures in the form of epic ecphrasis to inspire the noble sentiments of mourning for the heroic past, and fervor for a martial future.

Meis’s occasionally disruptive scurrility, however, his personal testimony to the temporary salvation afforded by inebriation from the awful seriousness of human life, is effectively balanced by his book’s most valuable innovation, which is nothing less than the tragic ecphrasis he performs as he “reads” Rubens’s “Drunken Silenus”, the painting that moved him to write about the artist and which gives him his title. (Or perhaps “tragic ecphrasis” has simply been art criticism’s constant mode since 1945.) Meis makes Silenus emerge from a frame that has “become the borders of a second world” in which events occur “all at once and forever”; and yet Rubens’s Silenus, as Meis engagingly points out, is in fact already threatening to emerge from his frame, in a painting whose orientation is skewed to the bottom left, and threatens to tip its subject out of his eternal, mythological existence, and into our finite, human world; and thus to foist upon its viewers a truth about that world – their world. “What is being human without being finite,” asks Meis,

without losing time, without the memory of past experience and the movement toward the cessation of all experience? It is nothing. We can’t understand it. The idea of an infinite being is the idea of a being that cannot ever be understood. The experience is too far away. It can’t even be called experience. But Rubens understands Silenus. To understand him, he makes a mortal of him. In the painting, Silenus stumbles forward like a man, awash in the troubles of finitude.

This is tragic ecphrasis because it elicits from its reader the emotions, not of regret for the valorous past or resolve for a heroic future, as does epic ecphrasis, but rather of pity and fear; indeed of an entirely inglorious self-pity – as human – and of an unmartial fear of the end – as finite; and, perhaps, it arouses the desire to be rid of this presentiment of absurd mortality in a great catharsis of drunkenness, which after all renders its subject entirely unfit for battle. This is tragic ecphrasis because it has abandoned the optimism of epic for the pessimism of tragedy.

But it is also, in this specific case, specifically, indeed technically tragic, since, before Rubens, before Titian, before Aristotle, the “truth” of human existence as revealed to King Midas by Silenus had already been spoken, on the tragic stage, in the Oedipus at Colonus, the great mourning play of the Theban trilogy of Sophocles, in which the incestuous, parricidal king, now blinded by his own hand, seeks the site for his own grave. “Say what you will,” sings the chorus, as Oedipus seems on the point of finding a melancholy refuge in Athens, but is reminded of the rancor that his offenses have engendered in his kin,

the greatest boon is not to be;

But, life begun, soonest to end is best,

And to that bourne from which our way began

Swiftly return.

And yet the solace of death, and transformation into tragic, if not epic hero, to be granted the mortal Oedipus and withheld from the mythical Silenus, will of course prove only an individual respite from the bitterness and folly of human existence. For Oedipus’s demise will not forestall the siege of his abandoned city of Thebes and the civil war that will pit his sons against one another, and end in their deaths at each other’s hands. One more battle, in other words, in that unending conflict linking the Trojan War to the Cold War, and beyond.