Friday, 1 September 2017

Giacometti’s ‘Figure Between Two Houses’ (1950)

In this sculpture - perhaps a metre square - a sparkling figure makes its way between two dark ‘houses.’ It’s a mannequin for a large public work never commissioned. I’m not surprised. The sculpture strikes me as a terrifying call to account - I came from darkness and I’m heading back to darkness.

It should be filed with the shortest of all Beckett’s plays, Breath (1969). Faint light falls on a stage littered with ‘miscellaneous rubbish.’ There is a cry, the sound of a breath being taken in and the light brightens. ‘Silence and hold about five seconds.’ Then the sound of exhalation, the light dims, a second cry and curtain.

Or here’s the first century Rabbinic apercu that, for the sharpness of it its observation of the nature of our journey between the termini of existence, gives both Beckett and Giacometti a run for their money. “Akavia son of Mehalelel would say, ‘Reflect on three things and you will not come to the hands of transgression. Know from where you come, where you are going and before whom you are destined to give a judgement and accounting. From where you come - from a putrid drop; where you are going - to a place of dust, maggots and worms, and before who you are destined to give a judgement and accounting - before the supreme ruler of rulers, the Holy Blessed One.’” (Pirkei Avot 3:1)

The emphasis on repenting our bad behaviour, on Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, is probably overplayed. Meanwhile, the way in which these days are intended to bring us to recognise our fragility and mortality gets less attention that seems warranted. For me the ultimate liturgical moment of the great services of the High Holydays is not the lists of sins, but rather the awesome words of the Unataneh Tokef - we pass individually before our creator, like sheep before a shepherd, we are called to recognise that we are like grass that withers, like a flower fading, like a fleeting shadow ...
But for all this bleakness I’m not sure Rabbinic Judaism (or Beckett or Giacometti for that matter) considers life meaningless or irrelevant. Look again at the teaching of Akaviah son of Mehalelel. The point of considering our fragility and impermanence is to keep us from sin. Or, to put it in positive, and Latin, carpe diem - seize the day.

Giacometti presents the moments between the dark places in brightness. This is the life we have, we can make of it what we will. But the awareness of where we have come from, and where we will be going, need not - and indeed should not - make us feel depressed or helpless. Rather this awareness is a call to action, sober and utterly realistic, but genuine and all the more powerful for that honesty. We should all try and walk well, while we can. For this time we have is limited. Less than three weeks to go.

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