Fin de Siècle Contretemps

The character Erik Schmidt has been given the voice of Hugo von Hofmannstahl, who, writing at the turn of the 19th into the 20th, had made himself a ventriloquist of the 17th century. Hofmannstahl’s Letter [of Lord Chandos to Francis Bacon] (1603/1902) is hereby plundered to forge a dialogue within a 21st-century crisis of fast-talking abstractions.

by April Elizabeth Lamm

Elizabeth Grey Boone-Broodthaers: It would seem, my dear, that a certain symmetry with the Divisionists will inevitably be awakened. Was that your intention?

Hugo von Hofmannsthal: Elizabeth, darling, a peculiarity, a vice, a disease of my mind, if you like…

Elizabeth Grey Boone-Broodthaers: And though the manner is very similar, the content will no doubt provoke the kind of ambiguous anxiety that will render your public numb. I would strongly encourage you to take prodigious care in your titles….

Hugo von Hofmannsthal: If you are to understand that an abyss equally unbridgeable separates me from the works lying seemingly ahead of me as from those behind me: the latter having become so strange to me that I hesitate to call them my property.

Elizabeth Grey Boone-Broodthaers: I see. You have fallen into one of your fretting moods. You should like to deny your history, make a clean slate of it? We’ve toiled over this before, not to say that anyone was paying attention.

Hugo von Hofmannsthal: Oh, you can be so wicked with me.

Elizabeth Grey Boone-Broodthaers: Indeed!

Hugo von Hofmannsthal: I know not whether to admire more the urgency of your benevolence or the unbelievable sharpness of your memory, when you recall the various little projects I entertained during those days of rare enthusiasm we shared together.

Elizabeth Grey Boone-Broodthaers: Hugo, you are testing my patience. Surely you cannot deny that there will be critics who shall proclaim that you are suffering from another bout of hysteria! You must make a statement addressing the rhyme and reason as to your having chosen the Holy Land.

Hugo von Hofmannsthal: Of course the critics will resort to their usual domain of rhetorical tricks: One can no longer say that the subject matter has been organized, per se, for the form penetrates it, dissolves it, creating at once both dream and reality, an interplay of eternal forces, something as marvellous as music or algebra. This was my most treasured plan. But what is man that he should make plans!

Elizabeth Grey Boone-Broodthaers: (bitterly) Have you been frequenting Khalil Bey’s again? I thought you had relinquished his company.

Hugo von Hofmannsthal: Oh I have, it is only the Courbet that I cannot resist.

Elizabeth Grey Boone-Broodthaers: The pudenda, yes. It captivates and stirs …

Hugo von Hofmannsthal: Much more than that! It is bloated with my blood. The memory alone dances before me like a weary gnat against a sombre wall.

Elizabeth Grey Boone-Broodthaers: Do you think Khalil will bequeath it to the d’Orsay?

Hugo von Hofmannsthal: Ah, I know not. He makes no mention of it. The mysteries of faith have been condensed there. This prophecy of morphing a train station into a salon d’hiver is most harrying to the soul.

Elizabeth Grey Boone-Broodthaers: Horrible place! It’s the one museum I ever dared deny my mother.

Hugo von Hofmannsthal: the Luxembourg? Foresaken?

Elizabeth Grey Boone-Broodthaers: Quite simply. We were at the Louvre and I refused to cross the river. She demurred, of course, her inhibitions as stalwart as my inalienable will. She mentioned it again when Trudy dropped in for tea yesterday. Such an original girl, and yet, she says so little.

Hugo von Hofmannsthal: Yes, one might call it a “recession” from the murmuring stream one is so accustomed to hear flowing from her thirsting lips.

Elizabeth Grey Boone-Broodthaers: (aside) Is she still dry?

Hugo von Hofmannsthal: Dry, my dear, is a term that crumbles out of my mouth like mouldy fungi. Why do you insist upon the necessity of always being so truthful?

Elizabeth Grey Boone-Broodthaers: A rose is a rose is a rose, nosce te ipsum, etc.

Hugo von Hofmannsthal: A rose? You endeavour to get a rise out of me?

Elizabeth Grey Boone-Broodthaers: Oh, I am well aware of how wary you are of being pigeonholed. You’re just like those, how were they called… before they were called the Impressionists, oh, you know! I know you do!

Hugo von Hofmannsthal: Hah! Indeed. The name has evaded you like a strange spiritual torment: “The Anonymous Society of Artist Painters, Sculptors, Printmakers, etc.”

Elizabeth Grey Boone-Broodthaers: I love that “et cetera”… or were you being cheeky?

Hugo von Hofmannsthal: I feel myself growing pale.

Elizabeth Grey Boone-Broodthaers: With good reason! Anonymous, independent, intransigent, I suggest that you concentrate on your titles. The title you have given to the show is immense. It works in the exact manner of that “et cetera.”

(Editor’s Note: Here Elizabeth is referring to the title chosen for the exhibition: “Working the Landscape”)

Hugo von Hofmannsthal: Oh, but these attacks of anguish spread like corroding rust!

Elizabeth Grey Boone-Broodthaers: Hush, hush. You flounder. You know, recently she asked me if I wanted to join her on a trip to Palestine. Why there, I queried, and she was unable to say, other than her wish to visit the Dead Sea, which I found strange. We’re Jews, yes, but Jerusalem was not the first thing she mentioned, no, but rather the curative properties of the beach.

Hugo von Hofmannsthal: Who is she? Gertrude? My Gerty! What? She cannot quit me in my hour of most need…

Elizabeth Grey Boone-Broodthaers: “She” is my mother, of course. You nincompoop.

Hugo von Hofmannsthal: I feel like someone locked in a garden surrounded by eyeless statues.

Elizabeth Grey Boone-Broodthaers: What’s this here on your table?

Hugo von Hofmannsthal: Oh, that’s just one of Moreau’s studies. Put it down.

Elizabeth Grey Boone-Broodthaers: They are so conspicuously abstract.

Hugo von Hofmannsthal: But it is difficult to surmise if they are un-finished, you know. The sheer number of them within his oeuvre makes it clear that he painted in this manner at least as early as the 1860s.

Elizabeth Grey Boone-Broodthaers: You don’t say.

Hugo von Hofmannsthal: But even the distinct image of an absent object, in fact, can acquire the mysterious function of being filled to the brim with this silent but …

Elizabeth Grey Boone-Broodthaers: Hugo! Really…

Hugo von Hofmannsthal: Don’t interrupt…

Elizabeth Grey Boone-Broodthaers: Yes, do go on… you shall bring me to tears! (laughs)

Hugo von Hofmannsthal: What was I saying?

Elizabeth Grey Boone-Broodthaers: … this mysterious function of the brim…

Hugo von Hofmannsthal: Yes, yes, and the sudden rising flood of divine sensation.

Elizabeth Grey Boone-Broodthaers: Careful, my dear, not to get too attached to those sensations. You must detach yourself.

Hugo von Hofmannsthal: The critics, I know.

Elizabeth Grey Boone-Broodthaers: Worse! The collectors!

Hugo von Hofmannsthal: Even in familiar and humdrum conversation all the opinions which are generally expressed with ease and sleep-walking assurance have become so doubtful that I have had to cease altogether in taking part in such talk. It has filled me with an inexplicable anger, which I can only conceal with great effort.

Elizabeth Grey Boone-Broodthaers: But you can very well predict, no? Auto-da-fé, the fatwas, the underlying sentiment of paranoia well on the path to paralysis.

Hugo von Hofmannsthal: You cannot mean…

Elizabeth Grey Boone-Broodthaers: Yesterday’s confabulation, I most certainly do. The Déjà New. That was it! Perhaps we should have taken less claret.

Hugo von Hofmannsthal: (deep in thought) Once, through a magnifying glass I saw a piece of skin on my little finger look like a field full of holes and furrows, and so it is how I now perceive human beings and their actions.

Elizabeth Grey Boone-Broodthaers: You should rather blindfold yourself than….

Hugo von Hofmannsthal: No, I no longer succeeded in comprehending them with the simplifying eye of habit.

Elizabeth Grey Boone-Broodthaers: It’s a thorny issue. You don’t want to put yourself in the position of having to kidnap yourself! Do tell me, what’s this one called?

Hugo von Hofmannsthal: This? It’s called Man in Tree.

Elizabeth Grey Boone-Broodthaers: Rather like the body snatchers. Do you know recently I saw a Degas that reminded me of your….

Hugo von Hofmannsthal: How utterly ridiculous.

Elizabeth Grey Boone-Broodthaers: No, really, in its lebensraum and not the wohnzimmer… those jockeys. You think I jest?

Hugo von Hofmannsthal: Rather you have placed cobwebs in front of me in which my thoughts may dart!

Elizabeth Grey Boone-Broodthaers: Hugo. Incorrigibly colourful. All pink and pale blue. What will they say as to the palette?

Hugo von Hofmannsthal: You cannot imagine that they will hurry down that path, surely?

Elizabeth Grey Boone-Broodthaers: Just as much so as they will to the Promised Land!

Hugo von Hofmannsthal: I dread the perilousness of the imagination….

Elizabeth Grey Boone-Broodthaers: But you cannot presume that making a trip to Judea as a German Jew….

Hugo von Hofmannsthal: I am not Ashkenazi, but a pseudo-Sephardi if you must insist.

Elizabeth Grey Boone-Broodthaers: Oh stop being so Austrian! In any case, your abstract notion of borders will be made a topic of, no doubt, as one cannot travel to the land of milk and honey without having made a choice….

Hugo von Hofmannsthal: I beg to differ. I was there thrice, thank you, but it was only this last time that suddenly I was overwhelmed by a sense of loneliness, something entirely unnamed, even barely nameable which, at such moments, reveals itself to me, filling me like a vessel, any casual object of my daily surroundings with an overflowing flood of higher life.

Elizabeth Grey Boone-Broodthaers: You are overflowing again… Restrain yourself.

Hugo von Hofmannsthal: Oh, Elizabeth, I cannot expect you to understand me without examples, and I must plead for your indulgence in this absurdity.

Elizabeth Grey Boone-Broodthaers: What absurdity can you possibly mean? I do understand….

Hugo von Hofmannsthal: No, I am quite sure you do not. I mean to say that a pitcher, a harrow abandoned in a field, a dog in the sun, a neglected cemetery, a cripple, a peasant’s hut – these faces in the field! All these can become the vessel of revelation.

Elizabeth Grey Boone-Broodthaers: You are covering yourself in evaporation powder. Like an ébauche, an unfinished work, surely you must express it somehow…

Hugo von Hofmannsthal: But why seek again for words which I have foresworn!

Elizabeth Grey Boone-Broodthaers: Hugo, if you carry on further like this I shall have no choice but to dress you up in lavender and banish you to the poetry room!

Hugo von Hofmannsthal: I have troubled you excessively…

Elizabeth Grey Boone-Broodthaers: But try, in stereoscope, please.

Hugo von Hofmannsthal: I feel compelled by a mysterious power to reflect in a manner which, the moment I attempt to express it in words, strikes me as supremely foolish.

Elizabeth Grey Boone-Broodthaers: You are well aware that Manet wanted his “copy” after Delacroix to be the opposite of a sycophantic imitation. He wanted to ensure that his own work could never be mistaken for one by Delacroix.

Hugo von Hofmannsthal: Syco, sicko, psycho, Elizabeth, you torture me again, the critics…. Like a splinter round which everything festers, throbs, boils. It is then that I feel as though I myself were about to ferment, to effervesce, to foam and to sparkle.

Elizabeth Grey Boone-Broodthaers: Hugo… oh never mind. Foaming, yes, that seems to be the case.

Hugo von Hofmannsthal: And the whole thing is a kind of feverish thinking, but thinking in a medium more immediate, more liquid, more glowing than words. It, too, forms whirlpools, but of a sort that do not seem to lead, as the whirlpools of language, into the abyss, but into myself and into the deepest womb of peace.

Elizabeth Grey Boone-Broodthaers: You sound quite settled on the matter, and I must say I do adore your Man in Tree. But I warn you that you must give heed to the titles. They shall resort to labeling it a dementia, a disease of the eye.

Hugo von Hofmannsthal: Bereft of feeling?

Elizabeth Grey Boone-Broodthaers: Yes, you must make clear that you have made frank use of the materials without attempting to disguise its process.

Hugo von Hofmannsthal: What do you mean? I leave myself to the boundless superiority of the mind that you have summoned before us.

Elizabeth Grey Boone-Broodthaers: There is a story, you know, going round about Monet and the Louvre. You have heard this already, no doubt….

Hugo von Hofmannsthal: No, please, I beseech you, do not tease me.

Elizabeth Grey Boone-Broodthaers: There is a rumour that Monet once obtained a license to copy in the Louvre, not to copy the paintings, mind you, but so that he could take his canvas and easel up to the balcony to “copy” the view of Paris!

Hugo von Hofmannsthal: … and that I have captured here the dreamy timeless aura of the Orient, you mean to say?

Elizabeth Grey Boone-Broodthaers: Déjà New. As we were saying yesterday.

Hugo von Hofmannsthal: Oh, Lizzy, my dear friend, you have unlocked this condition which is wont, as a rule, to remain locked up in me. Would that I had the power to compress this into an essay…. Would you, could you, I mean, only if you have the time and inclination….


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