|William Gass [Philip Guston]|
Rodin’s surfaces are there to suggest a reality that can only be inferred, just as fingers or a face, by gesture or expression, disclose a consciousness that would otherwise be indiscernible. Sculptures are things: they start as stuff, stuff taken from stuff like rock or clay, and they stay stuff until the artist gives them a determinate form so that, through that form, they may have life. The poet’s problem is precisely the opposite. Language is our most important sign of elevated awareness, but language has weak presence. Though often on paper, it possesses no weight. A poem is like a ghost seeking substantiality, a soul in search of a body more appealing than the bare bones mere verses rattle. . . . the poet must also be a maker, as the Greeks maintained, and, like the sculptor, like every other artist, should aim at adding real beings to the world, beings fully realized, not just things like tools and haberdashery that nature has neglected to provide, or memos and laws that society produces in abundance, but Ding an sich, as humans often fail to be, things in themselves. . . .
Rilke’s animism is poetical, of course, but is also, in its way, religious, for it requires respect for all things equal to the respect we tend to show now for only a few, since we prize so little even in the things we prize. It gives value, as Rodin did, to every part of our anatomy, to each muscle movement — stretch, twitch, and fidget; our physical features — a silk soft earlobe, tawny limb, or crooked finger; or facial expressions — grimace, smile, or howl; as well as the very clay we come from (at least in his workshop) — wood block, slab, and plaster pot. Moreover, it endows even the accidental encounter of different parts — my hand on your shoulder — with its own dignity as a legitimate state of affairs. . . .
the surfaces of Rodin’s work, which his studio light makes lively, implicitly rely upon a philosophical principle of great age and respectability . . . Since the effect in question is one of animation, it may seem odd that the principle involved is that of inertia. A body at rest will remain at rest — a body in motion will remain in motion — unless something else hectors or hinders it. When that interference occurs, the stone or the ball or the dog at the door will resist; it will attempt to restore the status quo, strive to save its situation, maintain its equilibrium, preserve its life. Spinoza called the tendency to stay the same the object’s conatus. It is popularly thought of as the principle of self-preservation. All things would be self-sufficient, as windowless as Leibniz’s monads, if they could. The condition of the fetus, which is automatically fed, protected from every outside shock, surrounded by an embalming ocean, growing as it has been programmed to grow, is ideal. We are pushed out into the world; we are forced by circumstances both inside us (hunger and thirst) and outside (sensation and harm) to cope, and, as Freud argued, we are repeatedly compelled to reduce the unsettling demands of our desires to zero.
A limp that tells the world we are compensating for an injury becomes a habit hard to break even when its cause has healed and there is no longer any “reason” for it. Except that the limp wishes to remain. Our stutter wants to stay. Our fall from a ladder would be forever like a cast-out angel if we didn’t fetch up in a lake of fire or at least on a floor. The fire, moreover, eats its way through every fuel it’s offered only because it is eager to stay burning like that bright gem of quotation fame. As the naked models move about Rodin’s studio, he observes the participating parts of their bodies until he can catch, in the middle of an action, the very will of the gesture, its own integrity and wholeness. . . .
the elements of a work of art must form a community which allows each element its own validity while pursuing the interest of the whole. A word, if it could have had a choice, must feel it would have chosen just the companions it has been given, so that when it glows with satisfaction, it also makes its line shine.
Moreover, the unity of a sculptural fragment, when imagined alongside a correspondingly severed limb, insists upon its own superiority, for it can flourish quite apart from any body, whereas both amputation and amputee are damaged possibly beyond repair.
As if he listened. Silence. Depth.
And we hold back our breath. Yet nothing yet.
And he is star. And other great stars ring him.,
though we cannot see that far.
O he is fat. Do we suppose
he’ll see us? He has need of that?
Sink in any supplicating pose before him,
he’ll sit deep and idle as a cat.
For that which lures us to his feet
has circled in him now a million years.
He has forgotten all we must endure,
encloses all we would escape.