J. M. W. Turner and the Bulgarian poet Tsvetanka Elenkova

We are in the habit of seeing the world as being full of objects. We view these objects externally to ourselves and consider that they may or may not come into our possession. If they do come into our possession, we may try to sell them and make a profit. This is more or less the stage our civilization has reached, which is not very far. Politicians, the ones responsible for governing us as a society, only ever talk about the state of the economy, this is the sine qua non of political discourse, they never inquire after our (or their own) spiritual well-being.

If we insist on viewing the world like this, as put there for our satisfaction, for trade, then we are in danger of missing out on a large part of what is before us. The world is not full of objects, it is full of subjects with which we have the opportunity to enter into a relationship of love, but this involves our regarding people and even things as subjects with their own purpose (which is not to satisfy me).

I could say even language fits into this way of seeing things. We consider language as a tool, a succession of words with which to convey our meaning, make ourselves understood, we never consider that the words may have their own meaning that they wish to convey, they may not be ‘ours’, so to speak, but have a deeper purpose. Let me give an example: ‘dogma’ is what the Church believes, but if you look at the word in reverse, if you turn it around, then you will see that the word itself spells ‘am God’. Perhaps this is the dogma that we need. To believe that God exists, to believe in him. I often think this is all Christ wanted – us to believe in him – hence his frustration on the last day of the Festival of Booths, when he cried out, quoting Scripture, ‘Out of the believer’s heart shall flow rivers of living water’ (John 7:38). Believe = belly + Eve (see my article ‘Word in Language (20): Believe’).

Words have a life of their own, but we are loath to see it, we are much keener to get to the core of the message we are trying to get across, so that we can be understood, so that we can get whatever it is we want. Words are fragments of the Word – that is Christ – they are put there for our benefit, for us to use in a good (read ‘loving’) way. If every word we spoke was spoken in love, placing the other before ourselves, what a different world this would be!

And yet we view the world as being full of objects. This is what happened to a lot of Turner’s paintings. Critics viewed them as objects. Take the example of the painting Snow Storm – Steam-Boat off a Harbour’s Mouth:

Snow Storm – Steam-Boat off a Harbour’s Mouth by J. M. W. Turner (reproduced from http://www.tate.org.uk/art/work/N00530)

The display caption from the Tate Gallery’s website reads simply, ‘The small ship, being overpowered by water and wind, can be seen as a symbol of human’s efforts to overcome the forces of nature.’ The catalogue entry says, ‘The picture may recall a particularly bad storm in January 1842 though it has not been possible to tie down the exact incident.’ There is then a lot of conjecture as to the name of the ship (possibly Ariel), whether Turner really had himself tied to a mast for four hours in order to be able to depict the storm more faithfully. One critic is not convinced and describes the storm as nothing but a mass of ‘soapsuds and whitewash’. Another seems to think Turner has thrown at the painting whatever he could find in the kitchen cupboard: cream, chocolate, egg yolk, currant jelly… It is possible to focus on the painting as an external object and to discuss its merits and failings, its historical circumstances, more or less endlessly.

But just as the word ‘dogma’ can be turned around to reveal its spiritual meaning, so the painting can be turned around to show another meaning:

Snow Storm – Steam-Boat off a Harbour’s Mouth by J. M. W. Turner (the same painting rotated anti-clockwise by ninety degrees)

This is the work being carried out by the Bulgarian poet Tsvetanka Elenkova, who is writing a series of poems that look at the spiritual meaning of Turner’s paintings. This meaning is important. It is right in front of our eyes, but more often than not we fail to see it.

So the poet discerns a face in the painting – the two eyes, the arched nose, the furrowed brow. And at the base of the nose, covering the mouth, a figure in black, arms outstretched – Christ on the Cross – with another figure in front, which she takes to be Christ holding a child. On either side of the Cross, the ginger hair of the man whose face we can see (God the Father), and where the white is, at the top, if we zoom in, the profile of a face with an open mouth and a long nose, wearing a cap (the captain who was reluctant to leave his ship).

If you rely on reason, you will not see these things. It is a question of faith, of believing, as Christ indicated to us at the Festival of Booths. Our world is lacking this spiritual vision. We continue to insist on counting what comes in and what goes out in order to make a profit from things we barely see. Even in cultural circles, such as literature and art, this spiritual vision is often not welcome. But it underlies everything before us, it expresses the essence of things. Not for a moment do I suppose that Turner was aware of this face in the painting when positioned vertically, this was the Spirit working through him. But ‘authors’ are translators, you see, they are prone to give meaning.

Jonathan Dunne, http://www.stonesofithaca.com

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