Titian and Tennyson

September 8, 2008

I like to show my students Titian’s, Flaying of Marsyas.

Titian's Flaying of Marsyas. Source: Wikimedia

Here is the story of Marsyas, a satyr who challenged Apollo, the god of music, to a musical contest. It was agreed that the winner could do what he wished with the loser. Marsyas, we see in the painting, has lost, and Apollo has chosen to see him flayed alive.

But with what transcendent genius Titian turns this pain into poetry. Titian understood what that meant; to challenge the god, and of course to lose, to have your skin taken off, to be exposed, with all of you to look at. On the left, there is Apollo, the golden-headed god, so meticulously and lovingly taking the skin off Marsyas’ heart. Above him, a butcher, the common man, is working his knife, too: the artist, is exposed to everyone. There is another satyr, trying to help, but pitifully, vainly so. The lonely artist cannot be helped; art is a solitary business.

Around Marsyas are three other figures representing, as I am told, three stages of the artist. There is a child, the potential artist, horrified at what being an artist can mean. There is the young artist playing a viola, looking away, as if unable to face up to the possibility of not being a great artist. And there is the old man, wearing the crown of success. It is Titian himself, in a self-portrait, who seems to be thinking “Have I done it? Have I gone far enough to be stripped bare before the world?”

The answer is in Marsyas’s remarkable face. It is not at all what we expect. Marsyas’s eyes are brilliant. He is ecstatic. He knows he has gone the whole way. And Titian, because he could paint such a picture must know, too, that he has gone so far.

I am no student of art, but I do not think I am putting the brush in Titian’s hand if I suggest that he was not speaking merely of artists, but of human beings, of which he may have considered artists to be the best examples, and not merely of music, but of all the human pursuits. It is the heroic heart Titian wants us to see. Tennyson, later, wanted to show us the same in his poem Ulysses:

…My mariners,
Souls that have toil’d, and wrought, and thought with me—
That ever with a frolic welcome took
The thunder and the sunshine, and opposed
Free hearts, free foreheads—you and I are old;
Old age hath yet his honour and his toil.
Death closes all; but something ere the end,
Some work of noble note, may yet be done,
Not unbecoming men who strove with Gods.

Titian has something else to show us, however, and that something is in the young lute player. He is healthier fundamentally than so many in the modern world because he at least knows what he is afraid to look at. Excellence can be agony, as we see, and it takes a noble heart to face being human.

But moderns only know heroism because they are so well acquainted with timidity. Titian asked if he has gone far enough: moderns would ask Marsyas if he feels good about himself. The question is silly and irrelevant. Worse, it leads us to an emasculated, sentimental way of thinking. We wouldn’t flay Marsyas today; we’d castrate him and not even Titian could turn that into poetry. Taking into account all the care we must have in encouraging and supporting the children we teach, I would still say that good feelings, any personal feelings if we believe Titian, have nothing to do with being excellent, not directly anyway, and certainly not in the way we commonly think of the words “good” and “feelings” these days.

Actually, modern sorts of people are more likely to ask if the rest of us feel good about ourselves, seeing how Marsyas has been singled out for special recognition by the god. And with that final, fatal turn, they paint us out of the picture altogether. They make us neither the old man, nor the young man, nor even the child. They render us un-human. We cannot even play the forlorn second satyr because we are looking at ourselves when we ought to be looking at Marsyas. We should be looking at Marsyas not because Marsyas is himself great, but because he shows us what greatness itself is. The situation is sad; I can think of no other word. “All previous ages have sweated and been crucified in an attempt to realize what is really the right life, what was really the good man,” G. K. Chesterton wrote. Nowadays we cannot describe good men, not only because we cannot describe the good, but also because we no longer know what it is to be men.

It ought to be obvious at this point that we cannot lay out greatness, such as Marsyas and Titian show us, as a list of criteria to be met by any who are interested, like we would set out the qualifications for an Olympic event. Human excellence is not something to be empirically measured. What would we measure in Titian’s painting? And even in the Olympics, while we marvel at the raw speed of a sprinter, we marvel more at the way the sprinter drives body and soul ever higher, faster, farther. And how absurd it would be to tell Titian that we will call him great only when he has created a painting seven feet high, with these exact pigments, with this sort of composition, with that sort of story. How weird it would be to tell Marsyas that we will call him excellent when he plays such and such a tune at such and such a tempo. Excellence has spontaneity in it; there are too many avenues to it to name them ahead of time. We can’t predict greatness, but we can call out when we see it, as Titian did.

We’ve talked about having Raphael’s School of Athens mounted in the school foyer. I would choose Titian’s last great painting instead. Raphael shows us how and what; Titian shows us why.