In my last post about Diogenes the question was raised: is stealing, embalming and displaying a dead tramp art? Tilda Swinton in a glass case, a video of David Beckham asleep, sound installation, performance art, embalmed sharks, embroidered tents and unmade beds, modern artists have repeatedly challenged what it is that can be regarded as art. What counts as art? How do we judge its value? Who is in a position to tell us what is good? These are among the vexed questions of aesthetics.
Edwin McKenzie, of no fixed abode, was painted many times by the artist Robert Lenkiewicz, between the late sixties and early eighties. Because he lived as a vagrant in a circular container overlooking a rubbish tip in Plymouth Lenkiewicz renamed him Diogenes, after the Greek philosopher who lived in a barrel. Diogenes’s philosophy was “live while you can and live in clover, when you’m dead, you’m dead all over”. He was born in 1912 and claimed that he had smoked a pipe since he was twelve, was a former lightweight boxer, designed and built the Plymouth Civic Centre, had won the Derby twice and the Grand National once, had played for Arsenal, and built the Tamar Bridge. Diogenes stood sentinel at a desk at the door to the artist’s studio demanding 10p for entry claiming the title ‘secretary’. When Diogenes died in a Plymouth hospital in 1984 Lenkiewicz and several of his children surreptitiously gained entry to the hospital morgue, wrapped the corpse in a winding sheet and stole it away. He was embalmed the next day, encased in transparent resin and remained under the bed of Lenkiewicz’s son for some weeks while he was revising for his A’ levels at an adjacent desk.
Dostoevsky wrote this letter to his niece Sophia Ivanova on 13th January 1868 while he was writing The Idiot:
“The main idea of the novel is to present a beautiful man…There is only one positively beautiful person in the world, Christ, and the phenomenon of this limitless beautiful person is an infinite miracle itself. The whole Gospel according to St. John is about that…I’d only mention that of all the beautiful individuals in…literature, one stands out as the most perfect, Don Quixote. But he is beautiful because he is ridiculous. Wherever compassion toward ridiculed and ingenious beauty is presented, the reader’s sympathy is aroused. The mystery of comedy lies in this excitation of compassion.”
Mikhail Bulgakov was a Ukrainian doctor who gave up medicine in 1921 at the aged of thirty and, living in Moscow, devoted himself to literature. He wrote absurdist, fantastical, grotesque comic plays, and novels such as A Dog’s Heart and The Fatal Eggs. He mocked the Soviet belief that science would solve all human problems and that society could progress to utopia and showed a magnificent disdain for this ethos of certainty. He deployed a prose style of boisterous nonsense to confront the new dour utilitarianism.
Edward Lear did not invent the limerick, a form that has been traced back to England in the early eighteenth century, and limerick was not the word he used (the term not being documented until the 1890s). Lear called them nonsenses, but he did fashion them into a literary form that made them famous.
There was a Young Person of Smyrna,
Whose grandmother threatened to burn her;
But she seized the cat, and said ‘Granny burn that
You incongruous old woman of Smyrna’
There was a Old Man of Peru,
Who never knew what he should do;
So he tore off his hair, and behaved like a bear,
That intrinsic Old Man of Peru. Continue reading
Rise from your bed of languor
Rise from your bed of dismay
Your friends will not come tomorrow
As they did not come today.
The poet of many voices Stevie Smith was an English original, both child-like and un child-like. Bordering on nonsense her poems roll with a jaunty sing-song timbre and a kick in the groin at the last. Continue reading
Will it be Emma or Mrs Elton who dances first at the ball at The Crown? Will it be pigeon-pie or cold lamb for picnic tea at Box Hill? Will the snow be too deep for the carriages to travel from Randalls to Hartfield on Christmas Eve? Why did Jane Fairfax walk to the post office in the rain? Will Mrs Elton invite Emma to dinner at the vicarage? Who sent the pianoforte for Jane Fairfax? Why did Frank Churchill take so long repairing old Mrs Bates’s wretched spectacles? In volume one Mr Elton is in love with Emma but she is incapable of seeing it. In volume two Emma thinks Frank Churchill is in love with her, but he isn’t. In volume three Emma thinks Harriet is in love with Frank Churchill, but she isn’t. Emma then discovers at the last that in fact she is in love with Mr Knightley, and marries him.