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The art of melancholy


MARK HUTCHINSON

MLANCOLIE Gnie et folie en Occident Galeries Nationales du Grand Palais until January 16 Jean Clair, editor MLANCOLIE Gnie et folie en Occident 504pp. ditions de la Runion des Muses Nationaux/Gallimard. 59euros. 2 07 0111831 2 Raymond Klibansky, Erwin Panofsky and Fritz Saxl SATURNE ET LA MLANCOLIE 738pp. Paris: Gallimard. 79euros. 2 07 071566 3 Hlne Prigent MLANCOLIE Les mtamorphoses de la dpression 160pp. Gallimard. 13.90euros. 2 07 0305996 Among the nearly 300 works on show in Mlancolie: Gnie et folie en Occident, the complex and hugely ambitious exhibition currently running at the Galeries Nationales du Grand Palais in Paris, is a copy of Robert Burtons miscellaneous masterpiece, The Anatomy of Melancholy. Littered with Bible quotations, Latin tags and allusions to everything from Chinese jugglers to the diversity of meteors, this promiscuous leviathan of a book is a good example of the dangers that lie in store for the student of melancholy. Originally designed as a medical treatise, it had grown, by the time Burton had seen it through its fifth and final edition, to half a million words and touched on virtually everything under the sun: literature, religion, philosophy, climatology, cosmography, folklore, politics, love, social reform. Burton even gives us a blueprint for Utopia. There is, it seems, no area of human activity that is not, in some shape or form, subject to the baneful influence of black bile, no nook or cranny of the mind into which this roving humour has not insinuated itself. It is inbred in every one of us, an infirmity of body and soul that dogs our every step. Burtons genial masterpiece is also a good illustration of one of the more puzzling features of melancholy. That reclusive clergyman may have lived and died in melancholy, as his epitaph in Christ Church says, but, paradoxically, this doesnt seem to have hampered his genius in any way. On the contrary, we may find ourselves wondering whether the good-natured gusto with which he gives himself up to his task, the ferment apparent on every page, isnt connected in some

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mysterious way with the very nature of his theme. This fundamental ambivalence is what the Paris exhibition sets out to explore. That a condition which we would today class as an acute form of depression might, under certain conditions, not merely have a constructive role to play in the life of the mind, but be the main driving force behind creative inspiration, is an idea that first gained widespread currency in the Renaissance and was to have profound implications for the development of every aspect literature, painting, science, medicine, technology of intellectual life in the West. To understand how this revolutionary transformation came about, we need to turn to a book long out of print in English, but reissued in French to coincide with the exhibition in which three distinguished scholars, Raymond Klibansky, Erwin Panofsky and Fritz Saxl, set out to examine the subject, and from which all subsequent interpretations, including many of the essays in the exhibitions bulky catalogue, take their cue. According to the authors of Saturne et la mlancolie, this reappraisal of the notion of melancholy was first effected very early on in the history of medicine, sometime in the fourth century bc when the doctrine of the Four Humours recently formulated by Hippocrates came under the influence of the portrayals of madness in Greek tragedy and the Platonic notion of divine frenzy. The text in which this new conception of melancholy is introduced for the first time is known as Problem XXX, I, and is reproduced, along with a detailed commentary, at the beginning of their book; attributed by the Greeks to Aristotle, it is probably, we are told, the work of Theophrastus. The question posed by Problem XXX, I is in the opening sentence: Why is it that all those who have become eminent in philosophy or politics or poetry or the arts are clearly melancholics . . . ?. By way of example, the text cites not only tragic heroes such as Herakcules, Bellerophon and Ajax, but philosophers (Empedocles, Plato and Socrates) and almost everyone in the realm of poetry. For the author of Problem XXX, I, that is, the sufferings of the philosopher and the frenzy that led Ajax to slay a flock of sheep in the belief that he was actually slaying his enemies can alike be attributed to the influence of black bile. What makes this text so important, Klibansky and his colleagues argue, is that in distinguishing between melancholy as a sickness, or medical pathology, and melancholy as a disposition characteristic of the outstanding individual, it opens the way not only for the transformation of an essentially pathological taxonomy (the classical doctrine of the Four Humours) into a psychological one (the medieval theory of the Four Temperaments), but also for the Renaissance rehabilitation of melancholy that was to prove so influential in so many spheres. There was nothing inevitable about this. Tucked away in a relatively minor text from the Aristotelian corpus, the new conception of melancholy could easily have passed unnoticed, and, according to these authors, this is precisely what happened. For 1,200 years, the idea of the gifted melancholic was forgotten, and it wasnt until the medieval schoolmen began their rehabilitation of Aristotle that any attempt was made to integrate the ideas set out in the Problems with a Western perspective. Even then, they tell us, what references there were to the Problems were little more than scholarly allusions, with no serious bearing on science or philosophy. It was only when the humanists of the Quattrocento turned their attentions to his work that the decisive shift occurred, due largely to the efforts of one man, the great Italian philosopher and scholar, father of Renaissance Platonism, Marsilio Ficino. In De vita triplici (1489), the first book to treat of melancholy at any length, Ficino not only rehabilitated the Aristotelian notion of the gifted melancholic, but expressly tied it in with the Platonic notion of divine frenzy, thereby laying the intellectual foundations for a new type of man, the homo literatus or tortured genius, pitched back and

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forth between the heights of rapture and the depths of despair. The book, Klibansky tells us, is a marvel of its kind, elegantly binding in hermeticism and Neoplatonism with classical and Christian themes, and offsetting the negative influence exercised by Saturn/Kronos in medieval astronomy against the healing power of Jove/Jupiter. The book was hugely influential throughout Europe, particularly in sixteenth- and seventeenth-century England, and without it there would probably have been no Burton, no Il Penseroso, no Ode to Melancholy, and, very likely, no Doctor Faustus either. For the visitor to the exhibition, it is important to know something of the scholarly background, for while some of the works on show Goyas Saturn Devouring His Son, say, or Rodins Thinker can be taken at face value, so to speak, there are many whose connection with melancholy is by no means evident. This is true not only of the early part of the exhibition, which follows closely the iconographic scheme outlined in Saturne et la mlancolie (the first room contains a series of works made between the sixth and the fourth century bc, including a black-figure amphora of Ajax Preparing His Suicide and a red-figure one of Medea Slaying Her Child, then leads straight on into the late Middle Ages), but true also of some of the later sections as well, which carry on the work begun by Panofsky and his colleagues whose book basically stops with Drers Melencolia I down to the present day. The English-speaking visitor is at something of a disadvantage here, for, though the exhibition is impeccably laid out, it is the kind of show that can only be fully understood by sitting down and reading the catalogue edited by Jean Clair. If you want to know what Antoine Chintreuils luminous little Silver Birch is doing in a show on melancholy, or how David Nebredas horrific self-portrait photographs fit into the overall argument, you will need to consult the catalogue; which, unfortunately, is only available in French and German (the exhibition will be going on to the Neue Nationalgalerie in Berlin in February 2006). The key exhibit in the early part of the exhibition is, of course, Drers Melencolia I, and the various works on show to either side of it chronologically from Grard de Saint-Jeans St John the Baptist in the Wilderness (c148085) to Cranach the Elders 1532 version of Melancholy all bear in one form or other on the dilemma which first finds expression there. Drers engraving is not simply the first great representation of melancholy, the first in which it takes on a life of its own, but the work on which the whole argument of Saturne et la mlancolie and, by extension, the exhibition turns. The picture is at once immediately legible and deeply ambiguous. Seated on a step outside a narrow building with a ladder leaning against it is a winged angel. Her right arm rests on a book in her lap, the hand holding a compass; her left hand supports her head. Hanging from the belt of her long, rumpled skirt is a set of keys and a purse. Seated on a millstone to her right is a plump little putto bent studiously over a slate, and, curled up asleep next to the millstone, a scrawny-looking dog. Strewn about the ground are a variety of tools and instruments a self-feeding furnace, or athanor, a polyhedron with a hammer lying beside it, a sphere, a set square, a pair of pincers, a plane, a handsaw, a ruler, three nails, and some sort of syringe. Fixed to the wall of the building are a set of scales, their pans exactly balanced, an hourglass with equal amounts of sand in each bulb, a bell at rest, and a magic square composed of sixteen smaller squares, each inscribed with a number so that whichever way you read the numbers (vertically, horizontally, diagonally) they always add up to thirty-four. In the background is a stretch of coastline overlooking an alarmingly calm lake or sea, and in the sky a comet, a rainbow and a batlike figure brandishing a streamer with the inscription Melencolia I. The scene is steeped in a lugubrious grey twilight. What makes Drers picture so enigmatic is precisely this superabundance of objects: it is overdetermined has too many

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clues and signposts pointing in similar but not quite identical directions. What do the comet and the rainbow signify? Why does the ladder appear to change plane halfway up? Why are there three nails, one with a double tine? Are they an allusion to the Crucifixion? (Jean Clair thinks they are.) After reviewing in great detail the positive and negative associations of the various symbols and motifs (the purse, the keys and the clenched fist, for example, are all associated with avarice, one of the vices attributed to melancholy in the medieval period; the crown of watercress and waterparsley around the angels brow are an antidote to the dry humour of the melancholic; the magic square is designed to invoke the healing influence of Jupiter, and so on), Panofsky concludes that Drers angel is a personification of Geometry overcome with Melancholy (or Melancholy giving herself up to Geometry) and was in all likelihood inspired by a follower of Ficino, the German philosopher Agrippa devon Nettesheim, whose book, De Occulta Philosophia, draws heavily on the Italians work, and a draft of which was sent to Drers friend Johannes Trithemius, in 1510, just four years before the engraving was made. Panofskys argument is persuasive, not least because it affords an explanation for one of the many riddles posed by the engraving: the number attached to the title. In De Occulta Philosophia, Agrippa distinguishes three kinds of melancholy: melancholia imaginationis, melancholia rationis and melancholia mentis, arranged in an ascending hierarchy. The first holds sway over the untutored, a category that includes architects and painters; the second, over philosophers, physicians and orators; the third, over contemplatives to whom Gods mysteries have been revealed. Panofsky concludes from this, not unreasonably, that Drers angel is a portrayal of the first of these, melancholia imaginationis, surrounded by her instruments but sunk in gloom at the thought of having accomplished nothing. This is not the only way of reading the picture, of course, and in Mlancolie: Les mtamorphoses de la dpression, the author Hlne Prigent shrewdly observes that Drer could very well have included objects associated with melancholia rationis (books, instruments for weighing and measuring) to indicate the direction in which the first stage of melancholy was moving. This is perfectly plausible, since not only are the rainbow and the comet associated with both categories in Agrippas system, but the system itself, unlike Ficinos, was fluid, not fixed, with the individual soul free to move up or down the hierarchy. In the catalogue, the curator of the German leg of the exhibition, Peter-Klaus Schuster, also takes issue with Panofskys interpretation, arguing that Drers angel is an allegory, not of geometry but of astronomy, a noble art, and cannot possibly be taken as a symbol of Faust-like despair. Schuster then proposes a reading of his own, based on a division of the picture into two halves, the right side embodying virt, the left side fortuna. I happen to find his interpretation unconvincing, in part because it involves seeing the sphere as a symbol of instability and the figure I in the title as a symbol of divine unity. There is nothing to prevent us putting a more positive gloss on the picture, however. As Schuster points out, Burton thought Drers sad angel . . . judicious, wise and witty, and Aby Warburg saw her as Melancholy triumphing over the madness that threatens to engulf her. Nor, we should remember, was Drer himself given to romanticizing melancholy: among the guidelines he sets out for the young apprentice in his Outline of a General Treatise on Painting we find, Sixth, if the child works too hard, whereby melancholy might superabound in him, that he be drawn away therefrom by merry lute-play to the pleasuring of his blood. In a sense, the precise interpretation we put on the picture is not important. What matters is the intimate bond it establishes between the rational imagination and the black waters of despair. As Jean Clair remarks a little further on in the catalogue, Melencolia I marks that fleeting and remarkable moment in the history of western thought when the artist believes he has become a polymath, an engineer, a

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geometer, a botanist and a physician, capable of taking the knowledge and measure of all things, numero et pondere, even as he discovers, with a start, that no mathesis universalis can re-order and gather together the disjecta membra of the real. And it is this outlook or belief, Clair suggests, that lays the foundations for the growth of science and, ultimately, for the domination of the world by technology. This is an intriguing thesis, and one that, because it touches on so many different fields, the works on show can only go so far towards illustrating. Even with the aid of wall texts, there is a limit to how much a painting or sculpture can be made to say. Both the Mlancolie exhibition and the catalogue grapple with this problem, not always successfully, and the solution they adopt is a mixed one, part iconographic, part chronological. Broadly speaking, the shifting attitudes to melancholy are treated century by century, but within that scheme, works from a different period may be interpolated to point up echoes or affinities. The section on the late Middle Ages, for example, also includes one of Max Ernsts most powerful and disturbing paintings, the large, flying version of The Angel of the Hearth, in which the somewhat pantomime-like monster of the smaller canvas (mistakenly reproduced in its stead in the catalogue) has been replaced by a truly hideous and altogether more ominous-looking angel, part bat, part witch, lurching menacingly towards the viewer over a deserted landscape. The reason it has been placed there is not only for the echoes it contains of various late medieval paintings of the Temptation of St Anthony (one of the themes explored in the section), but, as Werner Spies remarkssays in the catalogue, for the historical pessimism it implies: as though, with the horrors of the twentieth century, the West had finally come full circle. Painted in 1937 after the defeat of the Spanish Republicans, it was almost certainly inspired by Guernica and, impressively, bears comparison with Picassos famous icon. Achronological juxtapositions of this kind can be found all through the exhibition. Picassos Deaths Head, for example, modelled during the Occupation, appears among a group of grisly seventeenth-century works on the theme of vanitas, while Giacomettis so-called Cube a twelve-sided polyhedron made after visiting a Drer exhibition in Paris in 1937 has been installed in the middle of the exhibitionsMlancolies cabinet of curiosities, a room given over to the instruments and emblems of seventeenth- and eighteenth-century science. The objects and works in this room which include a planispheric astrolabe, a gilded bronze heavenly globe, a bats skeleton, a unicorns horn (that is, a narwhals tusk) and an anonymous, sixteenth-century copy of a Drer watercolour of blue columbine are particularly well chosen, and all, of course, are linked in one way or another to the theme of the exhibition: unicorns horn, for instance, was widely believed to be a remedy for melancholy, and blue columbine had been associated with the affliction ever since the fifteenth century. The main iconographic thread running through the show is the posture of Drers angel, with the head propped disconsolately on the hand. Drer didnt invent the pose, of course: there is a Roman bronze of Ajax in much the same attitude in the very first room, and two of the most beautiful examples in the entire exhibition Nicolas de Leydes Bust of a Man Leaning on an Elbow and an astonishingly vivid polychrome wood carving with the same title by an anonymous matre Strasbourgeois predate Drers engraving by several decades. What Drer did do, on the other hand, is identify the pose so closely with melancholy that it became a code. There are many examples of this on display, some more memorable than others; among the more striking ones, I would include Domenico Fettis Melancholy, a Double Portrait attributed to Giorgione, Georges de la Tours Madeleine at the Candle, a very beautiful Corot (Melancholy) and Ron Muecks hugely imposing Big Man, slumped in a corner in the final room.

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There are also moments when the connection with melancholy seems a touch strained. This is particularly true of the small room on music. Designed to illustrate the therapeutic powers ascribed to music ever since antiquity, this is probably the weakest room in the exhibition. Among the works in this section are a series of seventeenth-century paintings of David playing for Saul, Valentin de Boulognes Caravaggesque Musicians and Soldiers and Fernand Khnopffs Listening to Schumann, painted in 1883. The Khnopff canvas likewise seems a little far-fetched. The woman at the centre of the composition, who is listening to a figure playing the piano in the background, is indeed resting her head on her hand, but the pose is slightly different from the one we associate with melancholy; it is simply the posture that many music-lovers adopt in order to shut out visual interference. True, shes listening to Schumann and is wearing black, but the mood of the picture, the palette of which is dominated by warm reds and golds, has nothing conspicuously gloomy about it. As for the positioning of the hand, it is one in a series of devices designed, in true Symbolist fashion, to conjure up a synaesthetic effect. Like the cropping of the pianist, of whom we see only a hand on the keyboard, and the uniformly soft-focus texture of the picture, the screening of the listeners face from view tones down our own visual response and thereby helps suggest the experience of listening to music. As for Musicians and Soldiers, it is without question a very beautiful painting, but Im not sure it has much to do with melancholy. If the catalogue entry is to be believed, the connection is borne out by a second painting, Fortune Teller with a Drinker, a Lute Player and a Pick-pocket, probably conceived as a pendant to the present work; but since the painting is not included in the exhibition, we are none the wiser. If music played such an important role in sixteenth- and seventeenth-century life, it is partly, no doubt, because the cataclysm that looms on the horizon of Drers engraving has now occurred. For all its feverish activity and empire-building, that is, the period is one of intense anxiety and gloom, as so many of the works in this section bear out. The medieval world-view that Drers angel had hoped to reconcile with the new humanist learning is fading, and the heavens are slowly being dismantled. The gentle scholar embodied in Drers portrait of St Jerome, meanwhile, is giving way to a rather more shadowy figure. The shift here, Clair argues, is decisive: when Marlowes Faustus, greedy to increase his treasure, asks Mephistopheles to fly to India for gold [and] ransack the ocean for Orient pearls, he is behaving much like so many princes and monarchs of that time (Francesco de Medici in Italy, Philip II in Spain, Rudolph II in Prague, among them) who, if they were unable to dominate the universe, could at least reproduce the variety of the world in miniature in their palaces and halls. Collecting can itself be considered a melancholy pursuit, since it is part of the logic of a collection that it can never be complete. But when Faustus starts wanting to experiment with and transform the materials in his workshop, he converts the scholars study into an alchemists forge, and, in so doing, marks the turn from a theological age to one governed by technology. In Adriaen Mathens drawing of Dr Faustus in His Study, both the scholars posture and the plethora of instruments, we notice, are reminiscent of Drers Melencolia I; there is an important difference, however, for it is no longer the scholar who is winged, but the horned figure of Mephistopheles in the background. By the time we reach the eighteenth century, the divorce between melancholy and the imagination is all but complete. Neither the philosophers of the Enlightenment, nor their Revolutionary counterparts, had much time, it seems, for the English malady, as it was called. As Prigent remarks, neither of the Encyclopdies articles on the imagination so much as mentions it, while Diderot, in a short article on the subject, describes melancholy as a kind of spiritual exercise designed to shelter the soul from the more violent passions. This, as Guillaume Faroult explains in the catalogue, is la douce

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mlancolie of the age of Watteau, whose TheTwo Cousins is one of a small handful of works (Joseph Marie Vien the elders La Douce Mlancolie, a few etchings by Piranesi) on show from that period. Only towards the very end of the century, when the French Revolution begins devouring its own children, does the black sun of melancholy once more start to rise. In an essay on terror and melancholy in the Salon of 1801, Stphane Gugan argues that this renewed interest in the subject on the part of Constance Charpentier, Franois Andr Vincent and Jean-Antoine Gros (the three artists represented in this part of the exhibition) should not be seen merely as a response to the fall of Robespierre: like the Enlightenment movement of which it was part, neoclassicism, he argues, had always had two faces, and Davids The Lictors Bringing Home to Brutus the Bodies of His Sons is as prescient of the Terror as it is of the fall of the ancien rgime. As one would expect, the Romantic movement, in redrawing the boundaries of the sacred and the profane and rejecting what Auden called the mechanized desert of the city, is particularly rich in works relating to melancholy. If there is a bridge figure here, it is probably Goya, who has no fewer than eight works on display: Saturn Devouring His Son, Self-Portrait, Self-Portrait with Spectacles, Cannibals Preparing Their Victims, Capricho 43: The Sleep of Reason Brings Forth Monsters , Gaspar de Jovellanos, Time or the Old Ones and what is arguably the single most distressing painting in the entire show, Yard with Lunatics. The link between imagination and madness is also touched on briefly in paintings by Fuseli (Self-Portrait, Ezzelin and Meduna, Portrait of John Cartwright, Silence), Blake (Nabuchodonosor) and Victor Hugo (Planet (Saturn)). The bulk of the works in this section, however, are concerned with the revolution in mans attitude to Nature and are organized around two broad themes: landscape and the sublime (le paysage comme tat dme) and the melancholy of ruins. Among the most striking works in the first group (one or two of which, like the silver birch mentioned earlier, seem to stretch a point) are a series of landscapes by Caspar David Friedrich, Moon Rising over the Sea, Monk by the Sea and the astonishing sepia-and-pencil desolation of View of Arcona with Rising Moon; in the second group, Hubert Roberts Ruined Temple and Arnold Bcklins The Island of the Dead and Villa by the Sea. Both themes, of course, contain echoes of the Middle Ages, for, much as the medieval hermit withdrew to the desert for purgation, only to fall prey there to the temptations of demons, so the solitary Romantic turns to nature for spiritual replenishment, only to be beset by visions of an infinite and possibly indifferent universe. As for the Romantic fascination with ruins, it can ultimately be traced back, Clair argues, to a melancholy medieval tradition of Apocalypse. And an apocalypse, as the exhibition sees it, is pretty much what the twentieth century amounts to. Lest the visitor have any doubts that he is entering a madhouse, it is brought home to him by two grim, reclining figures between which he must pass on his way into the final rooms: Caius Gabriel Cibbers seventeenth-century carvings of Melancholy Madness and Raving Madness, which originally flanked the gates to Bedlam. The reason they have been placed there is bound up with one of the most sinister chapters in the history of medicine: the introduction, sometime around the middle of the nineteenth century, of the notion of decadence or degeneration. As the neurologist Laura Bossi explains, in an essay tracing the history of this peculiarly toxic notion, its dissemination was largely the work of three men: the psychiatrist Bndict Auguste Morel, the criminologist Cesare Lombroso and the writer Max Nordau. How their ideas played out when taken up by the Nazis, in conjunction with the sister science of eugenics, is too familiar to need rehearsing here. Not the least alarming aspect of this whole dark chapter, Clair argues, is that it reverses the process carried out in the Renaissance: where the Neoplatonist philosophers had seen in the spirirtual torments of the children of Saturn the seeds of genius, for Lombroso and

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company the imaginative powers of Baudelaire, for example (several of whose self-portraits are included here), mark him out as, quite literally, a madman. Baudelaire, the criminologist writes, strikes us as the true type of lunatic possessed by the manie des grandeurs: provocative appearance, defiant gaze, extreme self-satisfaction and so on. And it cuts both ways, of course: if there was no real place for the outstanding intellect in the new orders of twentieth-century totalitarianism, only for petit-bourgeois thinking and neo-Imperial kitsch, there was no place for the children of Saturn either, the Gypsies and the Jews, the misfits and the maladjusted, the elderly and the infirm, who were among the earliest targets of the new Reich. There is a very real and depressing sense in which the barbarities of the twentieth century marked, not so much a return to as an acting out of the most horrific visions of the Middle Ages. As anyone who has read his books will know, this murky confluence of clinical psychiatry, totalitarian ideology and art is classic Jean Clair territory, and everything in the modern section is designed to throw light on it: from Van Goghs Portrait of Dr Paul Gachet and some distinctly eerie plates from the French edition of Darwins The Expression of the Emotions in Man and Animals to Mario Seronis Seated Woman and Landscape: Melancholy and Antonin Artauds portraits and drawings, and on down to Anselm Kiefers Melencholia, a fighter plane made of lead that looks as though it had been cobbled together in a madmans garage in a grim tribute, not only to Drer but to the dead weight of Germanys Nazi past. I might also add that the eight essays Clair has contributed to the catalogue form the best introduction to the show, which, as I have tried to suggest, could be said to reverse the usual relation between exhibition and catalogue. There is one last question this complex exhibition raises, and it is an important one: have we, or have we not, put behind us the poisonous confusion fostered by Lombroso et al? Judging by some of the works (Artaud, David Nebrada) in the final rooms, the answer is Yes and No. No, because it wasnt all that long ago that Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari, whose appalling co-opting of mental suffering to political ends in LAnti-Oedipe has long been an object of Clairs wrath, were holding up Artaud as the fulfilment of literature and comparing the grandeur of the revolutionary schizophrenic with the destitution of the reactionary paranoiac. Artaud, as Jean Clair suggests, may well have suffered, like the artist DavidNebrada, from a condition known as Cotards syndrome or negation delirium, in which the patient believes he has no bodily organs and, in extreme cases, no body at all, and consequently that he is either immortal or already dead. Eugenics, too, is still with us in the form of biogenetic engineering. And Yes, because in the far corner of the last room is Ron Muecks great golem of a man who, whatever else may be said of him, has looked melancholy clearly in the face. And the effect is exhilarating.

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