Saturday, December 14, 2013

Is This Your First Time?

The other day  I was nattering on about seeing my favorite Caravaggio "for the first time."  Count on Proust to remind me that "first time" is a far more complicated concept than it may seem at first blush.  Here he is talking about music, but I don't see why you couldn't carry it over to art in general or, for that matter, to life itself:
 Listening for the first time to music that is even a little complicated, one can often hear nothing in it. And yet, later in life, when I had heard the whole piece two or three times, I found I was thoroughly familiar with it. So the expression “hearing something for the first time” is not inaccurate. If one had distinguished nothing in it on the real first occasion, as one thought, then the second or the third would also be first times; and there would be no reason to understand it any better on the tenth occasion. What
Proust, Marcel (2005-01-25). In the Shadow of Young Girls in Flower: In Search of Lost Time, Volume 2 (Penguin Classics Deluxe Edition) (Kindle Locations 1887-1891). Penguin Group US. Kindle Edition.

He elaborates:
What is missing the first time is probably not understanding but memory. Our memory span, relative to the complexity of the impressions that assail it as we listen, is infinitesimal, as short-lived as the memory of a sleeping man who has a thousand thoughts which he instantly forgets, or the memory of a man in his dotage, who cannot retain for more than a minute anything he has been told. Our memory is incapable of supplying us with an instantaneous recollection of this multiplicity of impressions. Even so, a recollection does
Proust, Marcel (2005-01-25). In the Shadow of Young Girls in Flower: In Search of Lost Time, Volume 2 (Penguin Classics Deluxe Edition) (Kindle Locations 1890-1894). Penguin Group US. Kindle Edition.

And a bit later, he writes of the fictional composer, Vinteuil:
In the Vinteuil Sonata, the beauties one discovers soonest are also those which pall soonest, a double effect with a single cause: they are the parts that most resemble other works, with which one is already familiar. But when those parts have receded, we can still be captivated by another phrase, which, because its shape was too novel to let our mind see anything there but confusion, had been made undetectable and kept intact; and the phrase we passed by every day unawares, the phrase which had withheld itself, which by the sheer power of its own beauty had become invisible and remained unknown to us, is the one that comes to us last of all. But it will also be the last one we leave. We shall love it longer than the others, because we took longer to love it. This length of time that it takes someone to penetrate a work of some depth, as it took me with the Vinteuil sonata, is only a foreshortening, and as it were a symbol, of all the years, or even centuries perhaps, which must pass before the public can come to love a masterpiece that is really new.
Proust, Marcel (2005-01-25). In the Shadow of Young Girls in Flower: In Search of Lost Time, Volume 2 (Penguin Classics Deluxe Edition) (Kindle Locations 1909-1916). Penguin Group US. Kindle Edition.

That last, I suspect you might apply to Proust himself.  So what could I have possibly meant when I spoke of my shock at seeing the Caravaggio "for the first time"--?  My best guess is this:I do remember being bowled over when I first saw The Calling of Saint Matthew. If pressed, I'd still say it is "the best" Caravaggio (but why let myself be pressed?).  But it wasn't my first Caravaggio.  Earlier--some years earlier, in fact--I had seen the Crucifixion of Saint Peter  and The Conversion of Saint Paul.  I knew I was in the presence of something important--knew it, not least, because I had been told as much by my friend and guide.   Indeed, the same day that I saw the Saint Matthew, I had earlier seen the Madonna dei Pellegrini in the Chiesa San'Agostono just up the street.  So I was, as its were, primed.

Was it Vladimir Nabokov who said that one should never read a book for the first time?  Maybe.  He apparently did say:
When we read a book for the first time the very process of laboriously moving our eyes from left to right, line after line, page after page, this complicated physical work upon the book, the very process of learning in terms of space and time what the book is about, this stands between us and artistic appreciation. When we look at a painting we do not have to move our eyes in a special way even if, as in a book, the picture contains elements of depth and development. The element of time does not really enter in a first contact with a painting. In reading a book, we must have time to acquaint ourselves with it. We have no physical organ (as we have the eye in regard to painting) that takes in the whole picture and then can enjoy its details. But at a second, or third, or fourth reading we do, in a sense, behave towards a book as we do towards a painting.
Quoted here.  And come to think of it, I am remembering one person who said we should never read (a certain) novel for the first time.  It was Joseph Epstein. The novel he had in mind was À la Recherche du Temps Perdu.

Footnote:  I just pulled down my copy of Terence Kilmartin's fine Reader's Guide to Marcel Proust where, inter alia, he lists all the "persons" listed in the novel--i.e., authentic human beings, as distinct from "characters" (they get their own list).  There must be well over 500 such"persons." Caravaggio is not one of them

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