Tuesday, December 6, 2016

Joseph and the Angel

There's a show of Valentin de Boulogne's paintings at the Met. Valentin (1591-1632) was a French Caravaggist twenty years younger than Michelangelo Merisi. They said there'd never been a show devoted to him before. He was pretty great. Here's "The Dream of Saint Joseph," as he is prompted by an angel to take his family and fly into Egypt. (The rest before the flight into Egypt.)

I think it's a great example of something close to the "Dream of the Burning Child" that Freud, and then Lacan, analyze so wonderfully, and shows the relation of that analysis to allegory (unsurprising, I guess, that there's a connection between dream and allegory). The angel is urging Joseph to wake and fly, but it is only in the dream that he can see the angel. We can see him because we are not part of that reality; we viewers recognize the dream because we belong to our own dream of human life, so far removed from the salvational history that this episode is part of. We want him to wake from our life, in which we share his dream of the angel, to go and save Mary and Jesus.

And yet even in our dream of the angel, we're not in his dream world. The angel may be in both worlds, or all worlds: his dream, our dream, reality itself. The angel of course would be invisible in reality -- or how could we know, as we do because we see him, that this is Joseph's dream? But he is its emissary, and therefore can wake him. But the angel that wakes him cannot wake us, and when Joseph awakens, the angel will disappear from our dream world too.

So, like so much Counter Reformation art, this painting shows the everyday truth of human life -- it's evanescence. The father of a newborn is asleep, exhausted, as one is. Some dream of the young man to come already haunts him, as he wakes up (in his dream) to the fact that the present is absolutely fragile, already past, and the future is already present. He looks so old -- is that part of his dream too? The age he'll be when he goes to see this painting with his son home from college for Thanksgiving? Or is that already the truth, so that like the friendly ghost Caspar Goodwood, he's been aged thirty years on the spot? Not "Come up and be dead," but: Wake up and be old! that's the demand the child makes, or rather that the father dreams the child makes. It's a wish-fulfillment, it's the demand the father wants the child to make, dreams he makes. He dreams that the child will live and thrive, and wakes up, old and exhausted, to try to make that dream come true.

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