Dreaming the Styx

Written on January 15, 2008 by Administrador de IE Blogs in Arts & Cultures & Societies

Miguel Herrero de Jáuregui

The painting by Patinir commented by Santiago in his last post is indeed remarkable, not the least for its effects on ST bloggers. Located close to other paintings by Bosch and Brueghel, it seems to make an immediate impression to young visitors of the Prado and haunt them (me too) through their entire lives. Let me dwell today, in a purely amateurish manner, on the proto-surrealist features which are present in the painting, like the phantasy landscape, the purposeful disproportion of the sizes, the sharp contrasts between darkness and light. And in the middle of it all, the deep blue-green of the Styx, which raises at the same time fear from its dead coldness and attraction to its depth as if some magnetic gravity was hidden below the still waters. The sames threatening, deadly stillness of the pools in Bosch’s Garden or Brueghel’s Fall of Icarus, where an apparently peaceful water is witnessing the death of the fallen youth, whose legs disappear anguishedly (in the right lower corner of the painting in Brussels, here attached) without anybody apparently noticing.Icarus

The whole atmorsphere in these three paintings is absolutely onirical. They depict death as immediately close to life, as the two sides of a coin which cannot be separated. And both, life and death, are represented as a dream-like landscape. This onirical tone could hardly be more appropiate, since there is no other way to see the Land of the Dead than through dream. With the rational categories we use while being awake, nobody can even imagine how “the undiscovered country” looks like. But the boundaries between possible and impossible are blurred while sleeping, and so are those between life and death. Dreams are traditionally the way dead people speak to the living. At the same time, people who claim to have had some sort of vision of the Other World invariably had it in some dream-like experience. There is, granted, another great source of descriptions of the Underworld, and indeed very baroque and detailed ones, i. e., myths. All cultures and religions have myths about the Land of the Dead. But myths have been often said, above all by the psychoanalytical schools, to be some sort of collective dreams. I am not going to judge here that much debated theory (neither will I dwell on the many-sided mythic tradition about Hades, leaving these matters for future posts). But it is undeniable that myth allows imagination flow in a non-logical way, with no regard for space or time, which resembles in many aspects the way in which dreams are experienced. Typically, the concentration of different meanings in one single object which becomes heavily symbolical is a characteristic feature shared both by myths and dreams. In both, a concrete object, a proper name, evokes simultaneously many ambivalent, even contradictory, aspects of reality which in the world of logic are strictly dissociated. Let me focus briefly on the central element in Patinir’s painting: the Styx.

The Styx separates the dead from the living and thus makes the separation apparently impossible. Apparently: for there are some ways to cross it in both sides, which all the heroes who travel to the Underworld, from Heracles to Aeneas and Dante, are able to find. The Styx, therefore, is prepared to join together in some occasions what she intends to keep separate. Her contradictory nature is shown in other myths about her, mostly told already by Hesiod in the 8th– 7th cent. BC: being a deadly and terrible goddess, she nevertheless supported Zeus in his fight for cosmic order against the chaotic Titans. In recognition from her unexpected support, Zeus granted her the honour that when any god, even himself, should swear by the Styx, he would be bound to obey: what could be nobler than an oath which gods must respect? And yet whenever the respect of that sacred oath is mentioned in myth it is because strict obeyance to that law causes a disgrace: Zeus, for one, unwillingly killed his lover Semele by swearing her “by the Styx” that he would give her whatever she wished, and she innocently asked him to appear in all his glory, with bolts and thunders which of course doomed her. A last contradiction of Styx: a death-river, its waters granted immortality (why not? myth just loves joining opposites!). And yet not completely: Achilles’ mother bathed him in the Styx to make him immortal, but she failed, because she left the heel unbathed, and in that weak point would (of course!) be struck by Paris’ arrow.

To sum up: in the Styx life and death, chaos and order, law and injustice, are fused in one single character, in whom one aspect brings along inevitably its opposite. Her single name brings forth all these concepts and their problems much more forcefully than one hundred theoretical treatises. Perhaps in that fusion of contraries lies the formula of the magnetic force which attracts us to its deep blue waters.

Let me come back to my starting point. Most 15th-16th cent. Flemish painters delighted their clients with peaceful settings and joyous bourgeois scenes, aiming to idealized realism as it had never been done before. What, then, made Bosch, Brueghel and Patinir, choose instead onirical shades, dreamlike subjects, mythical settings and omnipotent death? Probably their decision resulted (as a consequence) into an effective marketing strategy (rather, in my opinion, than from it). But that affects more perhaps later art merchants than the inner motives of the painter. I suspect (but I may easily be wrong) that their decision may be more related to why Goya painted for himself his black paintings: the conscience that the deep and still waters of the Styx hide all the dreams where life and death become closer, interchangeable, and even identical.


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