Wednesday, January 25, 2012

Winter of the Mind: The Cornell-Nathan Connection

I've just started reading the marvelous book by Dore Ashton about collage/assemblage artist Joseph Cornell titled A Joseph Cornell Album (NY: Da Capo Press, 1974). It is a portrait of an authentic and original American eccentric with a poetic soul longing for the past, to paraphrase from the Foreward.

From it I have learned about a short novel written by Robert Nathan (1894-1985): Portrait of Jenny (1940). It was made into a film in 1949, and when the book was republished by Tachyon Publications in 1998, Ray Bradbury wrote: "Welcome back, Portrait of Jennie. It touched and frightened me when I was twenty-four. Now, once more, it touches and frightens."

Cornell greatly admired Nathan's supernatural novel and repeatedly referred friends to it. It is a book saturated with the experience of deja vu, writes Ashton. It is also explicitly an avowal of discomfort in the present.

"There is another kind of suffering for the artist which is worse than anything a winter, or poverty, can do; it is more like a winter of the mind, in which the life of his genius, the living sap of his work, seems frozen and motionless, caught--perhaps forever--in a season of death, and who knows if spring will ever come again to set it free?" (Robert Nathan)

Cornell shared Nathan's romanticism and longing for the safety of other times. The possibility of mystery in the universe is another common theme reflected in Cornell's work.

"One must sometimes believe what one cannot understand. That is the method of the scientist as well as the mystic; faced with a universe which must be endless and infinite, he accepts it, although he cannot really imagine it." (Robert Nathan)

Here are links to a number of interpretations, musical and otherwise, of Nathan's novel. I like to think Cornell would have enjoyed these:

Jennifer Jones: A Mozartian "Portrait of Jenny"

Portrait of Jenny Trailer

Portrait of Jenny {a tribute}

Jennie - Nobody knows

Keswick - A Portrait of Jenny

Nat King Cole - A Portrait of Jenny

George Benson - A Portrait of Jenny

Joe Lovano - Portrait of Jenny

How watching these clips makes me feel is best expressed by a German word I learned from reading Ashton: "sehnsucht" or, a longing for other times. This last link is off-topic, but it embodies the longing:

Charlie Parker - Autumn in New York

“I suppose most artists go through something of the sort; sooner or later it is no longer enough for them just to live —to paint, and have enough, or nearly enough, to eat. Sooner or later God asks His question: are you for me, or against me? And the artist must have some answer, or feel his heart break for what he cannot say.” (Robert Nathan)

1 comment:

Jeff Roberts said...


I'm going to post a link to this from my Cornell blog: