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September 11, 1989 - Image 8

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Publication:
The Michigan Daily, 1989-09-11

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ARTS
-Monday, September 11, 1989-

The Mithigan Doily

Page 8

0

Wisdom and Strength
by Peter Walton
Doubleday
$19.95/hardcover
Peter Walton, a British journalist and writer about art, has set out to write
a "biography" of Wisdom and Strength, an allegorical painting by the
Renaissance master Paolo Veronese. Commisioned in Venice in 1576 by the
Hapsburg Emperor Rudolph II, the painting has been carried by war, treach-
ery and wealth into and out of the greatest art collections. Since 1912 it has
stood in the Frick collection in New York City. Walton's book is an attempt
to use the historical movement of the painting as a vehicle for a history of
art: what historical trends, intellectual, artistic and political, informed the ap-
preciation of its possessors. But he is also interested in what attracted the in-
dividual characters to the painting. It is an ambitious and enticing idea.
Walton paints nice vignettes. He does a good job, for example, describing
the fashionable decadence of 16th century Venice, demonstrating how this
was reflected in Veronese's attention to material luxury in his paintings. His
concern witlhtechniques and materials also gives the reader insight into how
Veronese achieved the interesting light-effects in his paintings. Walton also
provides quick and informed portraits of the men and women who collected
the painting: Rudolph as a mentally unstable emperor who ran a court peo-
pled with mystics and alchemists as well as the scientifically more sophisti-
cated astronomers and mathematicians like Brahe and Kepler; Frick as an une-
ducated boy from the country whose lust for art was motivated as firmly by
social as by aesthetic concerns. Such details, as well as Walton's fondness for
statistics and lists are interesting and entertaining.
But they are also more than that. They provide hints about the complex
tensions which characterize any society and which are often manifest in its
preciation of art. Walton is capable of canvassing broad themes, such as
w the individualism developed through humanism and the Reformation led
a revised conception of the artist and artistic creation which, in turn, re-
4sed the system of patronage: for the first time collectors bought paintings
4hich already existed, giving the artist greater creative latitude. But, unfortu-
4ately, Walton lacks the historical sophistication to mold these elements into
cbmpelling historical arguments. In his hands they remain vague possibili-
*es.
Wisdom and Strength harbors two other general kinds of fault which must
T mentioned. First, Walton has a tendency to grossly overgeneralize, reduc-
g the characters in his story to caricatures. For example,, after depicting
{queen Christina as a sophisticated if confused woman who shared with her
te and place an obsession with France and Italy, he writes: "Christina never
took to Descartes because he was not physically attractive." This seems, even
b1' Walton's account, an absurd statement.
Finally, Walton occasionally blunders into outright contradiction. He de-
spribes the ideal Renaissance artist as one who "created a beauty never before
den, indeed a beauty that was by definition impossible to see... on earth."
thirty-six pages later, however, he attempts to distinguish the Mannerists
from the Renaissance masters: 'The Renaissance artists were seeking to un-
gover a beauty that God had created but the Mannerists were intent on creat-
ing their own, man-made kind." His account is clearly inconsistent, suggest-
ing that he uses such vague formulations to suit the moment rather than the
evidence.. Nevertheless, as an introduction to art history, Wisdom and
Strength is readable, well-researched and generally accurate, if not very in-
sightful.
-T. Smuts

The Secret Life of
Saeed
by Emile Habiby
Readers International
$1 0/hardcover
History,vwrote Marx in an oft-
quoted phrase, first enters on the
stage as tragedy, and subsequently;
appears as farce. Condemned to repe-
tition, so the argument goes, His-+
tory's stories lose their initial edge
so that one can only engage and fi-1
nally master their brutal meaning by
laughing at how little humans seem
to learn - or want to learn - about'
the past's mistakes and the impulse
to repeat them.
But Israel's systematic oppression
of the Palestinian people, including
40-plus years of illegal land seizures
and forced emigrations, systematic
beatings and planned murders, appar-
ently defies Marx's prescription and
its assumption of normalcy. "We
have nothing to laugh about," pro-
claims a generation of Palestinian re-
sistance literature, "and there is noth-
ing farcical about how our successive
generations continue to suffer the fate
of their ancestors."
True though this may be, Emile
Habiby implies in his brilliant novel
The Secret Life of Saeed, that a lit-
erature without irony eventually
rings hollow; one can only strike a
heroic note or sustain a tragic mood
for so long before it loses its ability
to convey those very horrors it
screams of so often. Written as a
farce which fully recognizes how
humorous the incongruities of daily
life in Palestine can be, Habiby's
novel is paradoxically more success-
ful in sketching the horror of that life
than the ostensibly more "tragic" po-
etry of Mahmoud Darwish and Ghas-
san Khanifani, two of the most ac-
claimed Palestinian writers.
Habiby's protagonist Saeed is
hence not your typical resistance
hero. Rather, as a Palestinian collab-
orator more concerned with survival
than struggle, he bungles his way
from episode to episode marked by
craven cowardice and a stunning in-
ability to accomplish the tasks out-
lined for him by his Israeli superiors.
Certain that "the moon is closer to

us now than are the fig trees of our
departed village," he accepts apparent
strokes of fate - watching the Is-
raelis murder his father and deport his
first and only love in the War of
1948 and, subsequently, watching
them kill his wife and radical son in
the ominous year preceding the Six
Day War.
Neither surprised nor, conse-
quently, particularly incapacitated by
such happenings, Saeed is able to
train his perceptive glance on the Is-
raeli Occupation without letting his
emotions get in the way - usually.
The exceptions make for a beauti-
fully tight dialogue between Saeed's
bitingly cool wit - almost invari-
ably exercised at the expense of the
Israeli state - and those poignant
moments when the horror he experi-
ences and the rage he represses over-
whelm his pretense of distant invul-
nerability. The tension produced by
this dialogue, always present beneath
the surface, eventually precipitates
the long delayed explosion through
which Saced - and by implication
the long-quiescent Palestinian people
- are forced to wake from the
nightmare of History within which
they sleep and which "will reach
them nevertheless, generation after
generation," unless they confront it.
Saced's epiphanic moment takes
place in prison, where, his longtime
service to the state notwithstanding,
he eventually finds himself thrown
for a crime he did not commit. Hav-
ing been beaten brutally, he awakens
to find another tortured prisoner be-
side him who not only bears his
name but who, he discovers, is the
son of his first love, long exiled in
Lebanon. When the younger Saeed,
assuming that his elder counterpart is
in jail, like himself, for fighting the
Israeli state, praises him, it restores
to the older Saced a dignity he had
forgotten - literally and figuratively
a younger self - and allows him to
see more clearly than ever before that
the Palestinians' condition "con-
tradicted the laws of nature and the
rules of logic."
Still, old habits die hard, and
while Saeed refuses thereafter to work
with the Israelis, he fails miserably
in his efforts to become a hero as

'We have nothing to laugh about,' proclaims a gen-
eration of Palestinian resistance literature, 'and
there is nothing farcical about how our successive
generations continue to suffer the fate of their
ancestors.'

well. As the narrative draws toward a
close, one re-encounters the Saeed of
the early pages - with a significant
difference. For Saeed has been trans-
formed by his experiences, and even
if he will not pick up a gun, he is
more than ready to break the obses-
sive secrecy and frightened silences
which had accompanied his earlier
dictum to "walk on four feet... if true
caution demands it."
Now, remembering his son
Walaa's final scornful proclamation
before he was shot, he throws that
caution to the winds, deciding that
"just once, I want to be careless
about what I say." The result is

Habiby's text, as Saeed looks bacl
and recounts his experiences througI
a series of letters. If, as one of
Saeed's friends argues, "many adopt
literature because they lack power for
anything more," Habiby makes surd
that his audience nevertheless appre,
ciates the courage in resistance litera'
ture's quiet desperation. For whil
words alone cannot deliver a better
future, they are integral in providing
inspiration for the fighters who can;
Habiby's novel is so stunning bet,
cause its author understands this, and
is secure enough to accept the limited
albeit important role he has to play
in the Palestinian struggle. F
-Mike Fischer

World

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