Art’s illusion

From the apocalyptic
and the neo-gnostic point of view

Luca Vidotto

Can we deny the spirit and its illusions? Is the only reality the ones of the body ‒ the incarnation of the “man of sorrow” (as in the prophet Isaiah),[1] always marked by the stigmata of weakness, chained to the cage of the finite ‒, or can we find consolation in that impalpable splinter of splendour that is the spirit ‒ a fragment of light that goes beyond brute matter ?

Those who belong to the neo-gnostic ‘militia’ believe in spiritual salvation, in the art of transforming “baseness, misery, despair and destruction of the world into incorruptible wisdom, alchemical gold”.[2]

This is not, however the key to the door of Eden on Earth because the flowers of art do not deny the desert’s aridity within which we live, but it is rather “the revenge of life on the scorched earth”[3] that life itself is. Therefore, it is the alchemical miracle that makes the soul say: “Tu m’as donné ta boue et j’en ai fait de l’or”.[4]

But as Baudelaire well knew, that alchemical work always clashes and succumbs with the work of Satan and “est tout vaporisé par se savant chimiste”.[5] Incorruptibility is an illusion if placed in the hands of man and the miracle of art is Jonah’s gourd:[6] it is indeed a divine miracle, willed by God to place “a shadow over his head, to deliver him from his grief”[7].

Whatever dies is not merely ‘nothing’, and we ‒ a grain of sand thrown to the dirt, in the aridity of the desert ‒ are capable of blooming.

The Lord gives us revitalisation for our soul ‒ which is charred by the fires that smothers the Earth, by the fire of pain that nothing spares, and by the Sun’s rays, that from above, persecute us. Regretfully it is a liberation that lasts only an instant, because that plant “came up in a night and perished in a night”,[8] devoured by a worm.

After we have raised Maya’s veil and revealed the illusion, we see that art, as well as knowledge, are destined to die because “all is vanity and vexation of spirit”.[9] What is, then, the meaning of this illusion?

In this place ruled by impiety and despair, iniquitous in its every hidden crease, dominated only by death, art is a lie: “it is just the crown of vanity, a laborious and inconclusive addition to the punishment that life is”. This would be what Quinzio would answer, feeling horror and rejection in front of what hides or veils people’s suffering. Illusion, for the apocalyptic, is nothing ‒ an empty word.

Digging a bit into its history, retracing the paths that have determined its etymology, we discover however, a singular fact: in Latin ‘illusio’ means also ‘irony’. What wonder! ‒ the neo-gnostic thinker would say. In fact, wouldn’t ‘irony’ be perfect to reveal the tragedy of existence? Can’t illusion be the form through which life keeps us, ironically, alive? Isn’t it an irony of fate that the boue (mud) can turn into or (gold)?

The flowers of art contain in their corolla the purple-red scent of beauty. They are the illusion that in this ever so uglier land there still exists a refuge, a salvation, a handhold from which one can rise, from which one can see and know, and therefore lives the experience of love ‒ even if everything is ironically destined to fade, to pass, to die, not to be held back, as if it were sand held in a fist. Whatever dies is not merely ‘nothing’, and we ‒ a grain of sand thrown to the dirt, in the aridity of the desert ‒ are capable of blooming: we are “the rose of Nothing, | the rose of Nobody”.[10] If our song will rise “well above | the thorn”,[11] and if we are immersed in the sweet illusion of being saved ‒ the illusion of a moment ‒ we will be a shining fragment of eternity within the columns of Time.

[1] Is 53, 3, trad. it. di G. Ceronetti, Adelphi, Milano 1992.

[2] G. Ceronetti, S.Quinzio, Un tentativo di colmare l’abisso. Lettere 1968-1996, Adelphi, Milano 2014, nota 243, p.

[3] Ivi, lett. 243, p. 278.

[4] C. Baudelaire, I fiori del male, trad. it. di G. Caproni, Marsilio, Venezia 2018, p. 398.

[5] Ivi, p. 64.

[6] Gn 4, 6.

[7] Gn 4, 10.

[8] Qo1 1, 14, trad. it. di G. Ceronetti, Adelphi, Milano 2013.

[9] S. Quinzio, Un commento alla Bibbia, Adelphi, Milano 1991, p. 230.

[10] P. Celan, Poesie, trad. it. di G. Bevilacqua, Mondadori, Milano 2015, p. 379.

[11] Ibidem.