Sunday, 13 July 2014

The Goldfinch - A Nietzschean Glance

This week, I finished reading Donna Tartt's third novel, the Goldfinch, which is an absolute monolith of a tome and took me almost a month to complete. In truth, I found the book to be quite hard work though I will not be shy about concluding that it is an absolutely fantastic work of literature and it is certainly one which I will be thinking about for a few more weeks at least. However, on reaching the end of the work, I had a few thoughts which I though to share here.

A warning, though I have refrained from mentioning anything major, there may be a few spoilers ahead for anyone who has not read the book. That being said, they will only spoil as much as would be spoiled from having read the blurb. 

Primarily, my thoughts centre around how ideas found in Nietzsche's birth of tragedy, his thoughts surrounding the purpose of art, can be seen to be at work within the novel. This is not to imply that Tartt herself deliberately sought to implement these into her narrative (though I would not be surprised if this were the case as she has included references to Heidegger within the Goldfinch and the Secret History was filled with philosophical references) but instead to say that Nietzsche's ideas as to the role that art plays can be used to perhaps further elucidate what Tartt is saying.

Nietzsche, then, puts forwards two modes of art, the definitions of which are not absolute, for the pair overlap and interact, though are fundamentally angled away from one another. Before I go on to explain these concepts, I think it important to first point out that Nietzsche has a metaphysical attitude which is hovering in the background. Fundamentally, Nietzsche sees the world as being a place of suffering, and the role of art is to cover up this suffering. These concepts are the Apollonian and the Dionysian

Apollonianism is the way in which art is used to conjure up a beautiful illusion, behind which we can hide the fundamental nature of suffering possessed by the world. It most easily maps to the visual kinds of art, such as painting and sculpture, for these are the mediums most often used to capture stories, which are integral to an understanding of the Apollonian. This artistic drive seeks to allow the individual to immerse themselves in the ideal, in this system of symbols which enables them to overcome suffering through the creation of this grand illusion. 

If the Apollonian is basking in the glory of the individual, the Dionysianism is the contrary: the temporary destruction of the individual. Unseen forms of art, the most clear example being music, more easily fall into this drive, which is a drive to loose one's individuality and become united with the whole of nature. Whereas the Apollonian relieves suffering through hiding it, the Dionysian seeks to disassemble the individual, who can then no longer suffer. 

The man himself.

So, with that sketchy account of Nietzsche's aesthetic philosophy, I should probably explain how this links with the Goldfinch.

The Apollonian element within the novel is demonstrated in the way in which Theo uses art to give himself a reason to continue living. It is not as explicit as art directly preventing him from committing suicide, though there certainly is an element of that within the story. Instead, art is used by our main character as a way of connecting with the individuals who are most important in his life, centrally his mother. The Goldfinch painting is used to link him to his mother, as well as bringing both Hobie and Boris into his life in very particular ways. For a character who, from such a young age, experiences such profound loss (a lot of people die in this story, and the narrative can be very lonely at times), art definitely becomes one of his greatest links to others. This goes beyond the painting of the title, for his links to Hobie, who becomes a central father figure, are brought about through antique furniture, which I would definitely consider to be art. 

Interestingly enough, I cannot see a clear example of how art is used within the piece to give voice to the Dionysian aspect of art, though that does not mean that one is there. I searched for references to music, but those references are used to link Theo to his mother, rather than allow him to deindividuate to escape his suffering. That being said, there is another, non-art plot element which certainly does fulfil the Dionysian: drugs.

Yes, the constant tripping and experiments with various kinds of drug within the book can be read as a Dionysian element, for Theo is certainly using them to avoid the very deep emotional pain which is always just below the surface, barely contained. This can be particularly seen in the section of the book where he and Boris are first friendly (Boris is very much an Id character, if we wanted to toss in a little Freud), for the two of them become so close that the lines between them begin to blur, which could be read as a little nod towards the Dionysian. 

Certainly, Theo constantly deals with loneliness throughout the book, with a constant feeling of alienation and this is certainly linked to the Dionysian element of removing the boundaries between yourself and the rest of the world, through dissolving your individual self. It is an idea which links very clearly with certain concepts from Buddhism. 

Going beyond Nietzsche, the book does have a somewhat philosophical perspective concerning the nature of art as well as a few other things. The character of Boris is consistently used as a catalyst to shake-up Theo's approaches to the world around him, as well as holding several overt philosophical approaches himself. His understanding of morality, for example, as something which is not as black and quite as Theo might consider it, which, though it does lead Boris to do some deplorable things, does seem to hold true for Boris' character remains lovable and admirable, even Theo is unable to truly blame him, once all is through.

Regarding Art, the Goldfinch makes a point of exploring the idea that pictures we have only ever seen in replication, images rendered by people hundreds of years before our great-grandparents were even born, can speak to us in the most personal of ways. This idea is somewhat covered by Nietzsche's Apollonian, but I believe that it goes beyond it. It is not so much that the picture participates in the weaving of this illusion to hide us from pain and grief, but that the picture has the power to speak to us individually, rather than addressing the whole of humanity. When I look at a picture in a museum, I can feel it speaking to me, not to all men, but to me, in particular. There is an individual as well as collective way of approaching the understanding of a work of art.

Today was a particularly short entry, but no matter, it was only intended to share a few thoughts. Thanks for reading!

The GoldfinchThe Goldfinch by Donna Tartt
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Once again, Donna Tartt has displayed excellent literary ability and, whilst it took me a while to get through it, I definitely enjoyed reading The Goldfinch. It is the kind of book that I will be thinking over for a while to come before I have become even remotely close to exploring it properly. Excellent work!

View all my reviews

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