How Little We Know

On Man vs Corpse by Zadie Smith


Zadie Smith has a two-part piece in The New York Review that I found inspiring, it is beautiful, even though it would appear macabre. I was tempted to put up a painting I did around the time of the Iraq war of a headless, armless corpse with a chest window on its green heart, an inside-out American flag in the back ground and a landscape of the camouflaged material uniforms are made of. I’ve never done so because, for obvious reasons, most of the time we are insulated from the reality of warfare, and our relationship with death is obscure, and it wasn’t meant to be anti-american. They may be reasons that make it all the more necessary.

man vs corpse

the nameless, headless, image of death, with an envious heart for life.

Perhaps the essay’s two important inflections are about perspectives on the human condition regarding death or corpses, and how boring subjects in literature can be compelling if well written. I’m not sure that really covers it because there is a curious polarity Zadie presents as her own and then as the other. I’m really not a critic. I’m attempting to convey the importance of her writing about art and the re-presentation that images have on our psyche and philosophy.

Not just because of statements about culture and society (imagined comparisons between 15th century Italy and 21st Century [U.S.]) but perhaps more for the fact Zadie exemplifies in writing what could be known as an alchemical spirit. That is, the taking of one simple material and turning it into something rare.

In a recent post I alluded to reading as a means not an end. I expected laughter at my saying I read in the morning with tea; similar to that feeling I got trying to explain it to a writer who simply said, “that’s why we read”— stupid me, explaining reading to a writer; how self-indulgent, as if I could increase the numbers of readers in the world by telling anyone about it.  But these are dull reflections on my post.

Smith inspired or renewed my faith in human intelligence not only with great lead in paragraphs but, like a dream within a dream, by picking up a book in the entry of her apartment building and using it to develop several most needed thoughts on expression, art, the individual, and the culture or our current society.

Zadie puts down her smart phone and looks at the 1939 book on Italian Masterpieces, a procession of realistic courtly images, when she is struck by a drawing of Luca Signorelli: Man Carrying Corpse on His Shoulders, circa 1500. “To any reader of 2013 the works of 1939 may seem innocent. Though how jaded, how “knowing” we can think ourselves without knowing much of anything at all.”

Not only is the book on masterpieces a forgotten memento, the reproductions are poor. The contrast; please visualize the alluring beauty of the smart phone put down, to a poor reproduction of  this drawing of a naked man (from the Back) carrying a naked corpse. Smith considers the art of Warhol. The chemistry of the living passer-by and a corpse, the inevitable non association with the corpse, in-congruent otherwise but for the unexaggerated reflections by a writer, our boring lives reinstated as beautiful, because as she writes, I am the corpse.

The symbolism Zadie so skillfully explores, I can relate to for a number of reasons. For instance, imagining oneself a corpse, the reality we only hear about, except when it touches us directly, as when a relative or a family member dies. Even then, in less we are bedside for the last difficult breathe, we have services that take care of everything so that our life goes on, except for the emptiness, unchanged. They live on within us, the living, in the land of the living, without the reality of death. The juxtaposition of vigor and the end of experience—a world of illusion, the land of the living, where torment and  deep feeling seem to grow obscure. Art tries to break through but for centuries art was representational, realistic paintings creating illusions. Even, with the skill of the artist, create a propaganda image, to instill fear, persuade, to wield power.

The technology of our time provides everything for us. The imagination is supplied all manner of impossibility, the supernatural, special effects right down to our smart phones until we may not need imagination anymore, until we ask the question, why am I looking at this horror and feeling nothing? There is an essence to Zadie Smith’s piece, which is easily taken for granted, and I could be scoffed for saying — it is of spirit and imagination, it is reading that provokes our imagination and consideration, we find our affinities, or not, we remember how still was that corpse.

I applaud Zadie Smith.


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