two / one / many

10:46 AM Posted by James Owens

Nymphs Finding the Head of Orpheus (1900)
John William Waterhouse

She on the left troubles the afternoon’s repose. That she opens herself to the moment and inclines toward the object of attention, and the soft, girlish rondeur of arms and shoulders and thighs, the one leg tucked casually under the other. I like her better. She lingers in the mind.

But the two are, of course, one nymph. Waterhouse economizes by painting the same model twice, the same who is a naiad at the top of this page, the same whom he painted seven times in Hylas and the Nymphs, and in many other places. She was Waterhouse’s professional nymph. (Though she probably is not Muriel Foster, as so many irresponsible people on the Internet long for her to be, and there is no real evidence that she and Waterhouse ever had any “romantic” relationship. --- She is Eurydice, though, in all her poses, in a thousand women, Eurydice broken and disjecta.) ---(An addendum, later: Peter Trippi, in his Phaidon book on Waterhouse, says there are actually two models in Hylas and the Nymphs, but they sure are similar....)

This relationship between the two nymphs is the basic structural principle of the image, as attested in early studies for the painting, where details change, but the essential is carried through, the motif of similarity within difference.

This is an allegory of poetics. The two nymphs mirror each other in a musical notation of theme and variation. They translate each other. The two are as if one (and the one is as if two, but that is an abyss…). Here, before the still singing head of Orpheus, they bracket the primal chiasmus of simile, the exchange, the give and take of the like, which is a shiver of pleasure within the frame of the unlike.

It is the ground of poetry. It is also the ground of eroticism, this
dis-covery of similarity within difference. Poetics is an erotics of the word. The erotic is a poetics of the encounter (as many have written). J.W. Waterhouse --- so often treated as just another banal Victorian decorator --- is a great Dichter of this stroke of the logos in the darkness.

And to end, these lines from Michel Deguy (translated as well as one can by Wilson Baldridge):

La comparison entretient l’incomparable
La distinction des choses entre elles
Poésie interdit l’identification
Pour la douceur du comme rigoureuse

Commun? Comme-un
C’est tout comme
Faire comme si
C’était comme-un

Comparison looks after the incomparable
The distinction of things among themselves
Poetry forbids identification
For the sweetness, rigorous, of the like

Community? Comme-unity
Amounts to the same
To act as though
It were a comme-unity



Roxana said...

I like so much your interpretation of the paintings. and the paintings themselves, I think I have fallen in love with Waterhouse as about the same time I have discovered your blog (or you have discovered mine :-). independent, but converging happenings.
Deguy's poetry is not the type that I like, but I can see why you do. it can also be that I haven't read a lot of him, just isolated poems here and there.

James Owens said...

I never liked Deguy much in the past, either. Or maybe I should say, I never really read Deguy before. I tried a couple of times --- because everybody says he is so important --- but I let him drop after a few pages. What was the point? There is no sonorité in Deguy, little care for the image. But now, the book that contains the poem I’ve quoted, Gisants, “speaks to me.” Maybe it’s just the right time. Or maybe it’s just this one book….