Stay Sileni


Drunken Silenus Supported by Satyrs, attributed to Anthony van Dyck, 1620s

From 3 Quarks Daily:

In Titian’s early 16th century painting, as Meis reads it, the somnolent Silenus, who echoes the alert god’s posture as he is carried behind him by his followers, serves principally as a counterpoint to Bacchus, caught “midleap” as he springs from his chariot to console the abandoned Princess Ariadne: a still contrast to the hyperactive god, the tranquil pole in a kinetic chiaroscuro. Silenus, however, is renowned not only for his drunkenness but also for the pessimistic truth of human existence he is said to have revealed at the insistence of King Midas: “The secret, Silenus said, is that it would have been better not to have been born at all. The next best thing for man, Silenus added, would be to die quickly.”

Silenus, Meis knows, appears in the Homeric hymns as well as in Ovid’s Metamorphoses, and it is entirely possible that Rubens, according to Meis a would-be classicist, came across him in the pages of one of the “leather-bound volumes lying around his studio.” But, writes Meis, “I prefer to think of Rubens being struck dumb while looking at that painting by Titian”; and it is this imaginary aesthetic filiation, of profound emotion aroused by the consumption of visual art used to produce more visual art, itself capable of eliciting a state of mournful apprehension in its subsequent viewers, that Meis will enact for the readers of his essay.

Meis himself is not a visual artist, but rather an essayist and the author of a novel. “I’m interested in looking at visual art and thinking about visual art as a stimulus for the creation of more art,” he has said in interview, “in this case literary art.” Rubens in Italy, as Meis reconstructs him, gazes at Titian’s painting of Silenus borne along in a drunken stupor in the train of Bacchus’s followers, and returns to Antwerp to create his own Silenus: in several renditions, but most famously, and centrally to Meis’s study, in his early 17th-century “Drunken Silenus”, now at the Alte Pinakothek in Munich. Meis’s own reaction to the Flemish Master’s painting is not visual, but literary, the verbal rendering of a visual subject which is known to rhetoricians as ecphrasis and has been practised by such predecessors as W.H. Auden, William Carlos Williams – and of course by Vergil, in the “sunt lacrimae rerum” scene in Book 1 of the Aeneid, and before him by Homer himself, in his depiction of the Shield of Achilles in Book 18 of the Iliad, which stands at the origin of a tradition that has consistently associated the ecphrastic mode with the epic form.

Meis’s avowed forebear in the woefully ecphrastic response to the figure of Silenus, however, is none of these. Instead, it is Friedrich Nietzsche, who confronts the drunken tutor in The Birth of Tragedy, citing his appearance in a text of Aristotle’s, and extracts from him Silenus’s central, secret truth.

“A World Of Tears”: Rubens, Nietzsche, And Tragic Ecphrasis, Rafaël Newman, 3 Quarks Daily