Notes on Leonardo and the Future of the Past

WHILE walking along 57th Street recently I wandered into an exhibition the IBM Gallery was having of models built from Leonardo’s sketches. I say “wandered in” because I hardly suppose I would have gone from a simple description of the fare to be offered. I was caught by a glimpse of one of the drawings. It was not science, but the artful charm of the machines that drew my attention: a helicopter, a water wheel, a flying machine, a parachute which “except for its shape, resembles the modern version,” as the catalogue explained, a pile driver, instruments to measure wind, humidity, distance, the degree of the incline of a slope—what could one make of them? The wonders of science have by their ever-proliferating reality lost the quality of “wondrousness.” Amazement has fled the scene and we are literally prepared for anything. The real understanding of most of us does not even include the telephone and the radio, but that is no hindrance to acceptance of the most extraordinary discoveries. We cannot name anything “incredible.” The astronauts and their families are just as wondrous to the television audience as their capsules; indeed, the space suits and the capsules have about them a peculiar aspect of comedy. If you think of the models from Leonardo as science, you would have to say, Oh, dear is that all? Just a little old pile driver, a dear little water wheel, and all thought of sometime in the fifteenth century.

And so it is not as science that Leonardo’s inventive genius awes us. To the extraordinary achievements of the scientific imagination we can only give a blinking consent. The miraculous still lives in the personal. Niagara palls, computers compute into eternity, a universal automation changes every aspect of our lives, but we do not fall down and worship. In our age, the greatest emotion machinery can arouse is the anger we feel when it fails us in its expected functioning. Our greed, fed and fed, knows no end; but we do not feel grateful for what is in abundance. We feel that someday someone will understand everything—except the great artists. Awe clings to the total sum of genius, to Leonardo’s being, not to the important fascination of the products of collective discovery.

Maxim Gorky in his brilliant memoir on Tolstoy tells of a terrifying walk with the old man along the seashore and how it appeared to Gorky that Tolstoy was really God, controlling nature. “. . . he was looking into the distance out to sea, and the little greenish waves rolled up obediently to his feet and fondled them as if they were telling something about themselves to an old magician. . . . He, too, seemed to me like an old stone come to life, who knows all the beginnings and the end of things. . . . I felt something fateful, magical, something which went down into the darkness beneath him and stretched up like a searchlight into the blue emptiness above the earth; as though it were he, his concentrated will, which was drawing the waves to him and repelling them. . . .”

And that is how one feels about Leonardo, that if he is not God, he is at least a “god,” and all things come from him. And uniquely a possible god for us. His curiosity was of such an urgent sort that it fell under Freud’s suspicion. Why did he have to know everything? What was he trying to find out? We understand his dreams, too, through Freud. At least we bring him close to ourselves, whether we understand him rightly or not. (You cannot quite do that with Shakespeare. It’s so hard to imagine what he was like.) Prodigiousness, sorcery, mystery, magic, Leonardo has that, of course, preeminently, and his little machines have it too, strangely more than our lonely capsules forever orbiting. For we just accept the capsule as given, something in the living room. Leonardo’s drawings have come to pass, like old prophecies. You will fly in the air, like a bird.

The prophetic nature, or tendency, of art is usually of a totally different sort. Nothing of inventions, discoveries, but an unsettling apprehension, ahead of the time, of the changes in the habits of society, of the shifts in taste, of the degradations to come. Indeed the prophecies may be very small and very, very depressing, or large and tragic. We aim to frighten in our prophecies, to predict loss, diminishment. Going away from rightness, falling off, aridity, future violence: it is not the purpose of modern art to tell good news, that is, if it is concerned at all with society’s future. Mary, robes flying, was lifted up to Heaven, and she smiled with joy. We would flee from the Brave New World, that is, if we could. Prediction clings even to the most banal, for banality is itself a great insistence, always there asking for its share or more than its share. Our carelessness will bear its new careless fruit, our emptiness will grow and grow. These acts of recognition please in all the arts. Ugliness and sadness reach out to us.

Design and style, without consideration for content, without visions of man’s condition as it is and will be, are the usual prophetic instances in art, at least in painting; they simply predict themselves, by extension and multiplication, by strong example which, somehow, magically seize hold of the imagination at every point. And then we decide, with an odd unanimity, to call a new thing beautiful.

Beethoven said, “He who understands my music can never be unhappy again.” A paraphrase can only reduce the meaning of this. In the end when you say that you have loved a novel read long ago you can only mean that it made you happy to read it. I am sure this is why art is a sacred calling; we want happiness more than we want knowledge. Indeed they are united in art, happiness and knowledge. The unexpected and the unpredictable also affirm the sacred character of art; it falls like grace upon the just and the unjust, the good man and the wayward one. We cannot ask for anything more to our sense of things than the obscure birth of Shakespeare; it satisfies our faith in the mysteriousness of nature, it tells us once more that the plan of things will never be revealed.

Those who draw near to art by possession, by extraordinary studies, by unusual acquisitiveness—what do they hope to get from it all? Salvation? Enrichment? Enrichment, that odd word just now, with respect to art, carrying with it no hint of the soul. A literal enrichment for the lucky. Can salvation dwell at the dealers, make its home at the auction block? Perhaps it can, at least if one can think of just a little salvation, a mere touch of it, a hint—that degree may indeed sometimes be bought. The sacrifice of money in the flow of things is somehow connected with the sacrifices of art. Still, one would not want to linger too long on the terms of the connection, for all manner of unlikely and uneven and incompatible things are indeed “connected.”

The technology, the science rather, that fascinated Leonardo and which he thought of as a liberation for mankind, even if it was the thing itself rather than its use which he cared for, this same science seems to many artists threatening and hostile perhaps to the very existence of some art forms. Technology threatens to dry up the sources of feeling, as if they were a lake to be drained for some civic purpose. But we approach technology with fear and yet with a sort of attraction, a hint of surrender to its gorgeous power. Godard’s new film, Alphaville, is a perfect example of this love and hatred. The message of the film is that technology kills; it destroys the sensibilities, takes meaning and joy from life. Ah, but what is the other message, the hidden one? The real care and patience and inspiration of the film have not gone into the study of the hurt human heart but into the perfect representation of the sinister technology that is so much condemned. That which we are asked to hate has, in this work, an austere, beckoning beauty. The humanist is dead, but there is a certain aesthetic satisfaction in the orderliness, the cleverness of his extermination. What fascination the film’s set designers have had with the swift, bleak corridors, the dark cities and the looming skyscrapers surrounded by great bands of threatening light. And the sleek, “affectless” girls—it is hard to believe any man in the audience will find them unappealing. The exaggerations of technology are like some new and strange paradise, and one may himself feel a bit too old for them, a bit too nostalgic for the previous comforts of disorder and yet still not be able to say no.

Fear and love of technology, for the arts, seem to have replaced the fear and love of political power, of totalitarianism. It is Alphaville now, instead of 1984. In an article in the New York Herald Tribune about the character and opinions of the young radicals it was found that most of them were not the least interested in Communism. “They’re just old folks in baggy trousers who want people to write novels about tractors,” one young person said. Political suppression and manipulation have taken a terrible toll in the arts of this century —suppression and war. But these repressive governments could not produce an art. It was perhaps not so much the works they feared as the vain, obsessive creators of the works. Technology, however, could produce art; a technological society might have a technological art. Literature would suffer greatly, no doubt, but painting, sculpture, and architecture could adapt—or so we think, even if some of us might regret the losses adaptation would bring. I have read somewhere that Goethe went through the Alps with the curtains of his carriage drawn.

It is astonishing how much the arts can do without. Academicians are depressed as one after another of the “essential” ingredients are simply tossed aside. And it is not accidental. We decide we can do without what we can no longer manage to create. In fiction, for instance, the construction of a satisfactory plot seems more and more difficult for writers. How to find a plot, suitable in dignity and complication, to the high degree of hope the novelist has? The sense of characters involved in a common situation, the authentic motivation, the sequence of cause and effect: there has been some interruption in our ability to produce these things in fiction. “Oh, oh, the years oh. And the rotten rose is ripped from the wall.” That is fiction’s province. Those sweet little towns, lying under the damp grass of their long history; the rain and the snows that wash over the graves; the lost years; the splendid plot of birth and death, mistake and punishment: we have given this up, mostly, for episode, fragments. Had to give it up. Paul Valéry felt it ignoble to have to write, “Madame put on her hat and went out the door.” What we can no longer do with confidence we discard; it becomes out of date, academic, or commercial. The portrait and the aria belong here, too, perhaps.

Back to Leonardo’s drawings for his inventions. I am captivated by the parachute with a figure dangling from it. The notebooks say, “If a man has a tent of linen without any apertures, twelve ells across and twelve in depth, he can throw himself down from any great height without injury.” There is a sort of poetry in that. In the end, it is not Leonardo’s mechanical discoveries that attract with such force; more was prophesied. The future of art, perhaps. How neatly the drawings and the models settle into the scene, find their place in our life. The tragic beauty of The Last Supper does not seem to be ours any longer except as the most treasured memory of our souls. But the little figure dangling from a parachute: there we are, all of us.


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