Julián Montaño


Thou art become (O worst imprisonment!)

The Dungeon of thy self

John Milton, Samson Agonistes, 155-156.

There wasn’t any joint

There wasn’t any joint

For when you’re alone

When you’re alone like he was alone

You’re either or neither

T.S. Eliot, Sweeney Agonistes




We lose our identity when we lose our unity, the unity of our life. When we can not connect anything with anything, our memories and our present, our memories and our desires, our inherited rules and our emotions, we are less, we experience evil. Evil is disorder, a loss of unity, and therefore the parts of myself do not coincide, I lose identity across or throughout myself. My life is a wasteland, a city where there are many voices, a Legion, unable to sing chorally.

This was, at the end of Modernity, the experience of the Self. Modernity started as the project for conferring unity to Being through the Self, either through Reason and Knowledge or through Will and Creative Power. The great irony of Modern Times is that that redeemer power invested to the Self has become an illusion and the Self turned into a jail for our identity. There are Powers beyond the self, there are Others who can not be grasped entirely by our knowledge nor subjected by our intention, there is Body, which always withdraws from our will. When somebody discovers these facts but previously wanted the coincidence of everything (others under our rule, matter under our mind, nature under our culture, pure unity, control) he experiences precisely that, the disconnection, the gap, as something horrible: Terror, Vertigo. Reality contracts out from our limits, from the due form, from our scope. I could not maintain reality under one and the same criterion, I experience the dissolution of everything.

This is Bacon’s experience. In Bacon’s painting we assist to the dissolution of the unity. In Bacon’s paintings we see that Body becomes deaf flesh, losing the meaning, the intentional power and the organic structure that a body ought to have to be a body. That lost of intentional power, or even organic structure -the images of flesh subjected to pre-human powers, uncontrolled by the Self- is, I think, what Deleuze tries to mean by his concept of Figure, when talking about Bacon in his suggestive book The Logic of Sensation. Less fortunate is Deleuze’s idea that Bacon through Figure goes beyond figurative and narrative way of representing.

Post-structuralist passion for emptying culture of meaning and narrativity, intention and sense, and for substituting it by impersonal forces plays a dirty trick on the French mandarin (who met personally, by the way, with Bacon, then already a fashionable painter). Bacon represents the lost of the self, of unity, meaning and integration of personality, body and space, but that does not mean that this way of representing is not narrative or figurative –meaningful, integrated- in the common sense way.

Bacon’s painting is figurative painting, albeit expressive, in which there is content, true content being transmitted to the receiver, the public. Which content? A polyptic of all the ways in which the experience of the Self is missed, the lost of unity in the face, the body, gestures, my image in the mirror, my integration in a visual space, the identity of the sex and during sex, all the striking images of Bacon’s work.

The intuition of Gilles Deleuze about Figure in Bacon’s work (as something that is different or beyond the standard figurativism) is better expressed with concepts from a very different conceptual universe, that provided by Susanne K. Langer –an art philosopher who deserves more attention now, after too much post-structuralist conjuring tricks. I think that intuition fits very much with Langer’s concept of symbolic Icon. Figures in Bacon are Icons, not mere representations. Representations of the body in Bacon are figures that confers –and has the power to confer- a feeling on us, that lend us emotions beyond the lived ones on the occasion or in the particular situation depicted. Since the emotions transcend the particular situation depicted they invest us with universal feelings, feelings which we could share (for more about the concept of Icon, see my posts series Cosas que son Ejemplo de Sí Mismas in Sapiens Tribune blog).

And those feelings in the case of Bacon are the experience described at the beginning of this paper, the nowadays common experience of the death of the almighty Self.

Samson, for the tradition and for Milton –in his poem Samson Agonistes– was the hero who, blinded externally by his sins although enlightened inwardly, must destroy and bury himself with others for razing a wicked city. Sweeney is the exact likeness of the Modern man in Eliot’s work and in the Eliot’s homage to John Milton’s poem: Sweeney Agonistes. Sweeney was the man who bringing with him the primitive terror of a man who is blinded by his Self, menaces with bury civilization. Both of them were the Dungeon of themselves. Sweeney, nonetheless, lacks the final interior light of Samson, Sweeney is one of the hollow men, without organs, inner life, unity of life.

It is not casualty that Bacon found in Sweeney Agonistes a perfect narrative –yes, narrative- inspiration for his famous Tryptich, a work that we can enjoy now at the Prado museum.

In Sweeney Agonistes Tryptich, we can see those soulless skins that scare us in Eliot’s poem in their entire abjectness: ab-jectus, throw down before us. Forms with flesh without centre, ironically presented in the form of a tryptich, in the way the Iconic western tradition tells the history of Redemption, the assumption of flesh in the world of spirit. An Icon for an unredeemed man, prey of the Self.

It is a pity that Bacon was unable to present us a way for redemption as Eliot could find. Iris Murdoch, a writer and philosopher whose characters have sometimes that disturbing effect and iconic power we find in Bacon –both were of the same generation and both victims of the biographical mania in art criticism- would say that only the good, goodness, and the pursuit of Good beyond our Self could bring unity to our life. Only the path outside the Self (to Others, who do not appear as such in Bacon’s canvasses) could save us from the hell of flesh, sex and desire without meaning, the dissolution of our identity and meaningful living body with its inner principle of organization and unity: our soul.


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