Siren with Fish

So now I wish I had not become so frustrated with all the tourists taking photographs of the Chagall artworks in the Musee de Luxembourg, and joined in. I am trying to find, online, the particular piece of his work that I stopped in front of and willed a more soulful engagement with the experience than the one I was having. There was Chagall’s blending of strong motifs in a sort of astrological chart of colour around the piece. In the middle, a face—I think Jesus. But always in the piece other faces, less apparent, purposefully faint. Acrobatic divers, hanging in the air as if it were some enchanted blender. Red horses with human hands. Chickens, houses on fire. A depth to the artwork that, if it were not already so strongly suggested, made me think of the dreamwork and all its picture puzzlement as a clue to some unthought known, a simple but forgotten truth. But I can’t find the exact picture. Not online. A handful of those tourists have got the picture, no doubt, on their hard drives. But I didn’t take any photos. Instead, I stood in front of that picture and switched off my social self for a few moments, and let the art do its work.

I wish I could see it now. There are others I can find that appealed to me—that spoke to me. One was this one:

 Chagall Came Forth From Sea

I’m unsure why, other than that I was thinking of writing something on mermaids for a collection on DNA that a friend is organising through the Wellcome Trust. It’s called ‘Then I came forth from the sea’ and is part of Chagall’s Arabian Nights series. Now I look at it again, however, it reminds me of a dream. Not a dream of my own, but a dream of the protagonist in my novel, Benjamin Hayes. He’s a psychoanalyst in 1930s Paris, and he, along with the other main characters, are the reason I’m in Paris, to come and celebrate finishing the novel, six years of very hard work, some of that time spent practising ‘badly’, but for the last two years at least a novel that has been writing with ‘good’ practice, where I have had to open up emotionally to write something worth reading. To write something with some human truth and integrity to it. It’s no point asking why this doesn’t come naturally, although years spent closing up/down/inwards, however you want to metaphorise it, would probably be the answer to that. Life is about which way you fold, I’ve come to realise. Practising art or writing is no guarantee (although it does help) for ensuring that you fold outwards and open. I’ve found it’s harder than that.

So, yes, I’d come to Paris because of my novel. Six years and a huge amount of work, learning, practice. To come and celebrate, and draw a line under it, to send it out into the world, and move on. I persuaded a friend to come with me. When she walked in to the exhibition, she cried almost immediately at Les amoureux in vert, Chagall’s painting inspired by his wife Bella from around 1916-17, during the middle of WWI.


My friend could not explain why she cried. She had always been sceptical of people who said they had cried at pictures. I told her about James Elkins’ Pictures and Tears: A History of People Who Have Cried in Front of Paintings, and his research. Many of the people who responded to his ad for their stories cried over one artist: Rothko. The reaction is often unexpected. The reaction, I hesitate a guess, is the soul being reached by another’s soul, being touched by a message that these two souls share. The skill of the artist is in folding open this experience for others to share, learn from, be at peace with, heal.

Art feels to have an appeal and an encouragement to the soul. The very best art is the translation of an individual’s soul experience through the application of the tools she or he or it has to its best ability. It’s the soul of art that can’t be taught, I suppose; although the craft and technique are practices. There is also, I feel, good practice and bad practice. Playing the piano badly for ten years won’t make anyone a better piano player. I often feel that how we are ‘taught’ artistic practice gets it wrong, in that the most important element of craft is not technique, but is about opening up emotionally. Soulfully. It is the right way to educate—from the Latin, to ‘lead out’ (e-ducare) from what is inside. It’s also what my character Ben is interested in, in the novel, although this never gets fully explored. One of the reasons why this novel was so frustrating to write, was that it was written to deadline and word count limit as part of a PhD. Possibly the least creative experience in education I’ve had.

But I cannot wholly blame the PhD for that. It is how I felt for some of the past ten years. Not before that, though. Before that, I really was on a path of unfolding. So what happened? I can only simplify: the social self happened. Being cast out into an economic world where salary grade, promotions, workmates, progress, career, are all-important and all-encompassing. Without stronger parental and creative moorings, I went first into advertising, then back to journalism, then into charity work, bouncing around like an out-of-kilter spinning top, never happy, trying to find my way, always writing along the side, on the side, never taking my own creative expression seriously. Not really opening up through my writing. Or, rather, not opening up enough for what my writing demands. What good writing demands. Being too afraid to look closely at what my soul wants to express, wants to experience. What it is experiencing. This isn’t the route to fiction. It’s the route to literary art.

Until one day in 2003 I decided I’d had enough. Turned down a promotion to work as a Director of Comms for a media charity in Palestine. This visit to Paris wasn’t just the end of work on one project. It was the ten-year-first-step before I could stop, breathe, look around again. Wow. No wonder I sleep-walked through most of the holiday. Until the Chagall, when I woke up.

When I came across the Chagall exhibition, I knew I had to go. I had not seen any Chagall before, only come across his work online. So when the opportunity came to visit a collection of his work in the ‘between the wars’ period, it was a must-see. A Marc Chagall quote has drifted in and out of my sensibility for the last few months. It is this: “When I create from the heart, nearly everything works; when from the head, almost nothing works.” I wanted to understand, or get closer, to the artist, his work, to see if I could read from his work what he meant for his own work. I understood the concept of course. I’ve been very good at understanding concepts intellectually. I wanted to know if I could feel it, too.

And so there I am, standing in front of the Chagall picture, the depth of yellow and reds and greens, the face of Jesus (I think) surrounded by Chagall’s symbols, the working animals, the chickens, the horned bulls in full regalia playing the viola, the row of enflamed houses like Coronation Street-style terraces imposed into Dante’s inferno, the acrobatic dream-divers, the brides and their grooms, the menorah, the single lit candles, the faint faces in the chiaroscuro, the sense that Chagall created these images for no-one other than himself, and not even all of himself, but purely for his soul self, for the loves he kept close. “Only love interests me, and I am only in contact with things that revolve around love,” he said. His soul is love. His art is the transubstantiation of that love into something that can be seen, felt, cried over, by others. That touches the souls of others.

And it touched me. It did, in fact. But I did not cry. And I know why. Because my social self had set the terms of how I was spending my time—living my life at that moment (and for so many years! 😦 but not now…). My soul, which was (is) there, and immediately, when called upon, answered (yes, I can engage with this picture, I can teach you something, my friend, I can lead you out of your passivity) was still too weak, or rather, bound in constraints by a very strong social self (a self that needs to be frustrated with the tourists: this frustration feeds its strength, I understand now; a self that settles into an urban holiday passivity of dining and drinking and other activities: a passivity that presses down on the soul and ecological self that need to be nurtured and brought out in other ways; a social self that was, most of all, wholeheartedly tired from striving for social goals from the writing of my novel: recognition, security, a better life… still the model having been learnt from the economic world of a career… and then the realisation that the completion of the book brings none of these things, if they mattered at all anyway to the other parts of me).

But I have another Chagall now perched up on the picture rail in my living room where I am writing this. It is another mermaid, of sorts: Siren with Fish.

Chagall SIren with Fish

I don’t know what it is about these sea images, and these images of a human-animal hybrid, that attract me so much, but strangely, they are the images, the stories and the messages, that I need, and am still reflecting upon, to move on from the end of the major project/novel that has filled my life for the past six years. (Oh, yes, the other protagonist in my novel is called Marine Cizeau. She throws herself into water quite a lot (and throws Henry Miller’s novel Tropic of Cancer in a swimming pool…). Of course the relationship of women/water is a common one in myth, and a bit of a cliché. But there’s something interesting, I guess, in my own preoccupation with this, and wanting to understand depth and imagery and metaphor and soul and art. Marine was an editor of taboo books in Paris in the 1930s, fictional, but trying to live a life full of feeling and struggling against the social rules of her own times, and finally ending up choosing to have a lobotomy, rather than always feeling too much…)

I went to Paris to visit the places I’d written about, to see the houses and streets that I’d lived my creative life among, in research at least, but when in Paris I had such an underwhelming sense of passivity about the whole thing I barely even tried. But these Chagall pictures were there and in some way have settled an account, not with my social self, but with the soul, the soul that is, even if I cannot see it, am blind to it now, is there in the heart of my book and the reasons I wrote it, not only the choice of content, but the means of expressing myself within a particular (novel) form. And I think what they have done, what Marc Chagall has done, is show me a continuity of soul. A thread not through my life only, but from artist to artist, from soul to another soul, those people who choose to unfold outwards rather than close inwards. To dig deeper. As Robert McFarlarne says, “In the world of poetic experience it is depth that counts, not width.”

Siren with Fish. Goodbye Marine Cizeau, I suppose, goodbye Benjamin Hayes. I lived with you for the past six years in my head, and out on paper, I unfolded your life, or a part of it, and you were as real to me as I was to myself, and I hope I did you some justice.


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