[NetBehaviour] #lastesis

Max Herman maxnmherman at hotmail.com
Thu Jul 8 21:04:13 CEST 2021

Hi agee,

So interesting to hear about Chile's new constitutional project, and that their president is both indigenous and a linguist.  Writing a new constitution is definitely a challenge not just for politics but for literature.

I'm not too familiar with Chilean literature, but skimmed a list of them just now and noticed Raul Zurita who has written many works that reference Dante, including a trilogy of which the first book is entitled Purgatorio, and is at present working on a translation of Dante's Commedia.  (A link to his interesting poem "The Desert of Atacama VI" from Purgatorio is below.)

I would certainly hope that all of the literatures of Chile can interact to create the best and most imaginative yet pragmatic Constitution possible.  Wikipedia sadly states that there was no literature before colonization, which is a poorly considered definition of literature that excludes oral and other narrative traditions.  With the new president as a scholar and expert one can hope indigenous literature will be recognized and brought in fully.  The new constitutional project could possibly influence other societies as well beyond Chile.

Since Mapuche cosmology involves a deluge narrative, that could well be a topic or theme for dialogue among diverse Chilean literatures.  The "machitun" or healing ceremony could provide a template, as could the concept of "wekufe," link below, meaning something like "deceitful spirits."  Certainly in Dante, the evil long-term results of deceit or fraud -- despite their short-term expediency -- is a central and structural theme.  The political harm or toxicity of deception integrates in many ways with modern and high-tech political science on levels of technocracy such as surveillance, game theory, algorithmic manipulation, and philosophy or cultural theory exemplified well by Machiavellian doctrine and its many offshoots (both acknowledged and otherwise).

My own sense is that the Mona Lisa is designed and intended in many ways to be an active interlocutor to help humans in an age of technological deluge retain awareness of nature in ourselves and our environment and develop skill in all cultural realms -- art, science, engineering, politics, philosophy, etc. -- to persist in harmony with nature and thus survive times of great jeopardy like the present.  The painting's form and method modernize or reform certain aspects of Dantean ideas of accountability to both enlist and increase their effectiveness in opposing modern Machiavellian structures engrained with the radical notion that violence and deception are not morally tainted means that carry adverse consequences.

As Walter Isaacson wrote of Leonardo in his 2017 biography:

"[Leonardo] had a reverence for the wholeness of nature and a feel for the harmony of its patterns, which he saw replicated in phenomena large and small.  In his notebooks he would record curls of hair, eddies of water, and whirls of air, along with some stabs at the math that might underlie such spirals.  While at Windsor Castle looking at the swirling power of the 'Deluge drawings' that he made near the end of his life, I asked the curator, Martin Clayton, whether he thought Leonardo had done them as works of art or of science.  Even as I spoke, I realized it was a dumb question.  'I do not think Leonardo would have made that distinction' he replied."

Perhaps Leonardo could serve as an example of an artist-scientist using both visual and literary media to evolve medieval culture into the most technological modernity imaginable while also including nature in ways that parallel aspects of ancient, prehistoric, and indigenous philosophy.

Isaacson writes,

"The portrayal of the landscape behind Lisa contains other tricks of the eye.  We see it from high above, as if from a bird's eye view.  The geological formations and misty mountains incorporate a mix, as did much of what Leonardo produced, of science and fantasy.  The barren jaggedness evokes prehistoric eons, but it is connected to the present by a faint arched bridge (perhaps a depiction of the thirteenth-century Ponte Buriano over the Arno River near Arezzo) spanning the river just above Lisa's left shoulder.
"The horizon on the right side seems higher and more distant than the one on the left, a disjuncture that gives the painting a sense of dynamism.  The earth seems to twist like Lisa's torso does, and her head seems to cock slightly when you shift from focusing on the left horizon to the right horizon.
"The flow of the landscape into the image of Lisa is the ultimate expression of Leonardo's embrace of the analogy between the macrocosm of the world and the microcosm of the human body.  The landscape shows the living and breathing and pulsing body of the earth: its veins as rivers, its roads as tendons, its rocks as bones.  More than being merely the backdrop for Lisa, the earth flows into her and becomes a part of her.
"Follow with your eye the winding path of the river on the right as it passes under the bridge; it seems to flow into the silky scarf draped over her left shoulder.  The scarf's folds are straight until they reach her breast, where they start gently twisting and twirling in a way that looks almost exactly like Leonardo's drawings of water flows.  On the left side of the picture, the winding road coils as if it will connect to her heart.  Her dress just below the neckline ripples and flows down her torso like a waterfall.  The background and her garments have the same streaked highlights, reinforcing what has progressed from being an analogy into a union.  This is the heart of Leonardo's philosophy: the replication and relationships of the patterns of nature, from the cosmic to the human."

I do differ from Isaacson (and the majority of Leonardo scholarship) on the function of the bridge.  To my eye, it flows more emphatically into the spiral scarf than the river does.  This highlights the thematic similarity of the bridge and dress as examples of art and engineering, or what we would call technology, to illustrate what I would counterpose as the "heart" of Leonardo's philosophy which is the confluence of three elements -- Art, Nature, and Humanity -- not just a paralleling of the latter two.  As Joost Keizer has written, Leonardo wanted to parallel not just Nature and Humanity but Nature and Art (a term inclusive of all arts and all sciences), to show the natural aspects of culture and cultural aspects of nature.  To perceive this visually and thematically in the Mona Lisa it is necessary to distinguish the artifactual garment from the human person of the sitter; to do so opens up a "third dimension" of the work conceptually, reorienting Leonardo's complete oeuvre in the process with implications highly relevant to the anthropocene era which Leonardo, as a modern intellect, foresaw with great depth and acuity.

To conflate the sitter and the garment as "Mona Lisa," representing the human microcosm, is to overlook the true scope and dimensions of the work, simplifying into a rather stock trope of medieval cosmology what is actually the first comprehensively modern evolution of its medieval predecessors, indeed, an evolution of comparable moment to the heliocentric model itself.  The sitter is a distinct entity from the garment, and their relationship -- not their identity -- is fundamental.  To ignore this is, practically speaking, to fail to see what Leonardo is depicting, or in other words, to make his art and science both invisible.

Isaacson also does not (nor does any Leonardo scholarship to date) consider that the right hand is pointing, and if so, at what must be understood as the garment.  Though he attaches importance to the river and pointing gesture of Woman Standing in a Landscape, often interpreted as depicting a scene from Dante's Purgatorio, he does not associate the gesture with any suggestion of whether or how to traverse the stream (even though that is the primary role of Matelda in Purgatorio 28, i.e., to carry Dante through and across the river that washes away his moral errors in transit).  Once the Mona Lisa is understood to be pointing, the enigmatic nature of Leonardo's use of this gestural motif in numerous works, his later paintings in particular, becomes possible (perhaps providing a "missing link" or legend-like explanatory function often ascribed speculatively to a lost work Angel of the Annunciation).

I disagree with Isaacson that the curving shape in the left background of the Mona Lisa is a road.  It is much too large to be a road, far too wide where it turns, and shows striations identical to Leonardo's drawings of shallow, dry, or shifting riverbeds.  There is also a small branching which does not conform to an interpretation of the form as a road.  This seemingly minor distinction is important, because it means that the bridge is the only sign of human activity in the background, and since it was the last element added to the composition -- as shown by infrared imaging -- additional questions follow (including, possibly, whether the amorphous hill-like shape, often considered to be an unfinished portion of the work, that forms a parabolic line with the spiral scarf, was an earlier design feature meant to "connect" the landscape to the sitter and garment, but was set aside in favor of the bridge -- a kind of un-hidden pentimento implicating the bridge's presence as a major compositional decision-point).  Understanding the S-shape as a river, rather than a road, also integrates thematically Leonardo's ideas about the passage of geologic time as reflected in the shifting courses of rivers.

On a perhaps minor detail, Leonardo would never call roads the "tendons" of the earth as Isaacson does.  Rather, Leonardo wrote, "we might say that the earth has a vegetative [living] soul and that its flesh is the soil, its bones are the arrangements of the connections of the rocks of which the mountains are composed, its cartilage is the tufa, its blood is the veins of waters; the lake of the blood, which is throughout the heart is the oceanic sea; its breathing [...] is the flow and ebb of the sea; and the heat of the soul of the world is the fire which is infused throughout the earth."  No artificial body parts here, in other words.  🙂

Whether reassessment and new interpretation of Dante and Leonardo can support literature's role in helping humans adapt to the challenges of the next century is unknown.  Yet just from a hypothetical point of view it does seem to me that the language and literature of indigenous cultures could be a very helpful mode of dialogue toward such goals, perhaps even more so if non-indigenous literatures can take a look in the mirror and keep up their end of the conversation!

All best,



PS -- On the troubling topic of sexism in Dante (which I would argue Leonardo made significant efforts to remedy), I wrote the following poem yesterday using the Dantean canzone form.

On Canto 19

I can’t conceal the problem I must face
In that the siren dream is anti-woman.
Perhaps it wasn’t Dante but his place
In time that forced him into macho blaming.
Yet clearly some responsibility
Was shifted during old medieval times
From men with power, office, gravity,
To disenfranchised women using rhymes.
That Beatrice was chief does not atone
For symbolizing his own turpitude
As aging, ill, and feminine in sex.
A helpful turn or plait might be alone
To dream himself as withered, rank, and crude
In fancy dress, avoiding side effects.

From: NetBehaviour <netbehaviour-bounces at lists.netbehaviour.org> on behalf of AGF <agf at poemproducer.com>
Sent: Wednesday, July 7, 2021 4:09 AM
To: netbehavior list <netbehaviour at lists.netbehaviour.org>
Subject: [NetBehaviour] #lastesis

morning from Finland,

I asked the visionary art 'collective lastesis' about sound
in their powerful performance project #lastesis

hope you find time to listen:

LISTEN: rec-on.org/lastesis.html
transcript: https://etherpad.wikimedia.org/p/lastesistranscript
[READER] https://rec-on.org/pdf/fst6_lastesisREADER.pdf
w {organize} against #femicide ::: https://www.are.na/agf-poemproducer/organize-against-femicide

with Chile overthrowing their imperialist Pinochet constitution with
pressure from the street, electing an indigenous scholar as head of the new
constitution in the making with the first to insist on gender equality
is so amazing and hopeful to me


AGF: @poemproducer
***sound & poems***

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