Death and Art

I recently wrote a Tweet — one of those little phrases on Twitter — which I thought was rather clever:  “Don’t read a book. Read an author”.  Unfortunately I didn’t get a flood of emails congratulating me on my wisdom or asking what I meant.  As with most tweets, I got no reaction, which begs the question “What’s Twitter for?”, a question I tried to answer in this article some time ago.

But I do think it’s a valid point. Rather in dabble in entertaining but shallow rubbish like “the World According to Jeremy Clarkson” which I am reading a the moment (it’s damn funny I have to admit), I should be reading all of the books by the authors whom I think are world-shatteringly great: George Orwell, whose insights into language and politics are unsurpassed; Cormack McCarthy (No Country for Old Men); Ismail Kadare, the only Central of East European on my list, Alasdair Gray, Scottish author of Lanark and the only great author whom I have met, and Haruki Murakami.  Reading this lot could keep me busy for years.

One of my favourite authors is Ryszard Kapuscinski, the Polish journalist,  secret police informer (allegedly) and witness to 27 wars and revolutions.  Africa was his patch and his books about that continent are incredible.  His description of the coronation of Haile Selasse (in “The Emperor”) is like a fairy story and one of the strongest images I have in my mind is his account of getting malaria. He describes being debilitated by the disease, not being able to move, and some friendly locals apply their version of a cure which is to wrap the patient in a carpet and put a big rock on them. He lived.

Kapuscinski’s Magnum Opus is Imperium and rather than try to summarise it I will quote the first line of Amazon’s description: “The Polish journalist whose The Soccer War and The Emperor are counted as classics of contemporary reportage now bears witness in Imperium to the disintegration of the Soviet Union. This magisterial book combines childhood memory with unblinking journalism, a radar for the truth with a keen appreciation of the absurd.”

There is one part of Imperium which, for me, is so striking that I am quoting it in full (the first time I have copied such a big quote.)

It makes me realise that Death and Art are mysteries that I will never understand.

Here it is:

“Bukhara is brownish; it is the color of clay baked in the sun. Samarkand is intensely blue; it is the color of sky and water.

Bukhara is commercial, noisy, concrete, and material; it is a city of merchandise and market places; it is an enormous warehouse, a desert port, Asia’s belly. Samarkand is inspired, abstract, lofty, and beautiful; it is a city of concentration and reflection; it is a musical note and a painting; it is turned towards the stars. Erkin told me that one must look at Samarkand on a moonlit night, during a full moon. The grand remains dark; the walls and the towers catch all the light; the city starts to shimmer then it floats upwards, like a lantern.

H. Papworth, in his book The Legend of Timur, questions whether the miracle that is Samarkand is in fact the work of Timur, also known as Tamerlane. There is something incomprehensible – he writes – in the notion that this city, which with all its beauty and composition directs man’s thoughts towards mysticism and contemplation, was created by such a cruel demon, marauder, and despot as was Timur.

But there is no denying the fact that the basis of Samarkand’s fame was born at the turn of the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries and hence during Timur’s reign. Timur is an astonishing historical phenomenon. His name aroused terror for decades. He was a great ruler who kept Asia under his heel, but his might did not stop him from concerning himself with details. Timur devoted much attention to details. His armies were famed for their cruelty.

Wherever Timur appeared, writes the Arab historian Zaid Vosifi, “blood poured from people as from vessels,” and “the sky was the color of a field of tulips.” Timur himself would stand at the head of each and every expedition, overseeing everything himself. Those whom he conquered he ordered beheaded. He ordered tower built from their skulls, and walls and roads. He supervised the progress of the work himself. He ordered the stomachs of merchants ripped open and searched for gold. He himself supervised the process to ensure they were being searched diligently. He ordered his adversaries and opponents poisoned. He prepared the potions himself. He carried the standard of death, and this mission absorbed him for half the day. During the second half of the day, art absorbed him.

Timur devoted himself to the dissemination of art with the same zeal he sustained for the spread of death. In Timur’s consciousness, an extremely narrow line separated art and death, and it is precisely this fact that Papworth cannot comprehend. It is true that Timur killed. But it is also true that he did not kill all. He spared people with creative qualifications. In Timur’s Imperium, the best sanctuary was talent. Timur drew talent to Samarkand; he courted every artist. He did not allow anyone who carried within him the divine spark to be touched. Artists bloomed, and Samarkand bloomed.

The city was his pride. On one of his gates, Timur ordered inscribed the sentence: IF YOU DOUBT OUR MIGHT – LOOK AT OUR BUILDINGS! and that sentence has outlived Timur by many centuries. Today Samarkand still stuns us with its peerless beauty, its excellence of form, its artistic genius. Timur supervised each construction himself. That which was unsuccessful he ordered removed, and his taste was excellent. He deliberated about the various alternatives in ornamentation; he judged the delicacy of design, the purity of line. And then he threw himself again into the whirl of a new military expedition, into carnage, into blood, into flames, into cries.

Papworth does not understand that Timur was playing a game that few people have the means to play. Timur was sounding the limits of man possibilities. Timur demonstrated that which Dostoyevsky later described – that man is capable of everything. One can define Timur’s creation through a sentence of Saint Exupery’s : “That which I have done no animal would ever do.” Both the good and the bad. Timur’s scissors had two blades – the blade of creation and a blade of destruction. These two blades define the limits of every man’s activity. Ordinarily, though, the scissors are barely open. Sometimes they are open a little more. In Timur’s case, they were open as far as they could go.

Erkin showed me Timur’s grave is Samarkand, made of green nephrite. Before the entrance to the mausoleum there is an inscription, whose author is Timur; HAPPY AS HE WHO RENOUNCED THE WORLD BEFORE THE WORLD RENOUNCED HIM.

He died at the age of sixty-nine, in 1405, during an expedition to China. “

One Response to Death and Art

  1. Julian says:

    Intriguing material, Rupert, and beautifully expressed. Freud, too, wrote that man is capable of anything and yet can control only what he does.

    It’s true too that creativity comes from the shadow part of the psyche, the repository of all that is repressed, denied or just plain perverse, hidden in the unconscious. Creativity comes from the same place as cruelty. Only few cruel people possess the imagination to foster great works. Had Ceausescu been a cultured man, what a great palace there would be in Bucuresti.

    I couldn’t help wondering what would have happened if Nazism had triumphed and Hitler had gone on to build the new city of Germania in place of Berlin. Would it have become a neoclassical wonder, a modern Samarkand where the works of favoured artists and architects prospered? (Did Timur simply employ the Speer of his day?) Well, one could go too far in that comparison. There is great variety too amidst evil and madness.

    Then look at the painted churches of Stefan cel Mare. Historians note that he was a great leader, but also that he was irascible and cruel, quick to put men to death. Well, that was a good way to remind the Turks and Tatars to reconsider their expeditions. A cruel man, if one believes those accounts, who sponsored great art and architecture. And a gifted leader of heroic proportions. A Romanian who tested the limits of human activity.

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