Human faces of Monet's demons


An impressionistic portrait of Jean Monet on her deathbedThe other night I scored a ticket to the MTC's production of Arthur Miller's play The Crucible. The play depicts 17th century Salem's descent into chaos as women are suspected of being witches and of practicing the dark arts on God-fearing puritans. In one memorable scene three women appear to be terrified out of their wits by a demon climbing along a roof beam — it seems they're possessed, the demon taking control of them.

The vision of people being possessed by demons elicited laughter from the audience, as did the 'irrational' fear that the spectacle drew from the other characters in the play, the judges, ministers and men of authority who scampered hither and thither.

The Crucible dramatises a time when people thought of the world as full of competing forces, spirits of good and evil, clashing around them. And they understood themselves in terms of what Charles Taylor calls the 'porous self' — a self that can be invaded and controlled by these external forces raging through the universe.

I suspect the laughter of the audience speaks of a modern understanding of the individual as self-contained, a self that isn't preyed on by forces at large in the world but that can be developed and shaped at will by the individual.

The American sociologist Robert Bellah calls this the 'therapeutic self': if an individual has problems, these can be resolved by 'therapy' of various kinds. The self can be built, enhanced and shaped as we like. So the splendours of our Facebook pages or LinkedIn profiles become means of building the self — changing its contours and shading, shaping other people's perceptions of us so that, in turn, we can think differently of ourselves.

This understanding easily directs us towards fantasy — people have dreams of turning themselves into the embodiment of certain 'forms'. That's why you have the well-worn tropes of 'social change activist', 'incredible young leader' and 'visionary' — those self-descriptive taglines that run across countless Generation Y Twitter feeds, Facebook pages and personal websites.

We can think of this as a process of self-administered therapy — all of these new media allow us to project ourselves onto a social screen to be received and critiqued. They can be used as means of convincing ourselves that we match up to the fantastical self-images we aspire to and they become a way of communicating our confidence that we can determine the shape of our lives.

But interestingly, there's a point at which the language of therapy seems inadequate, a line beyond which the self seems so uncontrolled and unruly that we return, like the Salem witch hunters, to the language of 'demons' to describe it. In fact, over the last decade demons have been plaguing the world — celebrities across the planet have been waging a war against these diabolical spirits.

According to the headlines Keith Urban 'battled his demons', Heather Mills urged Macca Paul McCartney to 'confront' his, Brendan Fevola was advised to 'excise' the demons possessing him, and Robbie Williams went all the way and 'exorcised' his resident spirits. And I thought exorcism wasn't in fashion!

Pondering this Salem I found myself some days later at another Melbourne cultural offering — the National Gallery of Victoria's Monet exhibition. Everybody loves Monet, his work has therapeutic qualities — his waterlilies draw the world up close, enfolding the viewer in a matrix of colour and sensation.

But one of Monet's works stood out in a different way — the portrait of his young son Jean Monet, painted soon after his mother Camille had died. The little boy gazes at the viewer with a bewildered sadness in his eyes. It's the kind of image that draws one away from fantasy, the fantasy of strongly independent selves and Facebook visionaries and even the fantasy of Monet's garden.

In the medieval world, at least in urban settings, people living outside of the decorative centre of town wouldn't have seen much in the way of colour. But walking into a church they would have been met with the splendour of icons, rich with colour. The icons weren't just pretty, they pulled people into relationship with their subjects — you can't stand in front of an icon and not be engaged by the eyes and face. As Rowan Williams writes of Byzantine icons, 'the image gives directions, it essays a way of bringing you into a new place, a new perception'.

For me, standing in front of Jean Monet was equally engaging. One walks in from the outside world, perhaps composing a tweet, and then there is Jean Monet who just lost his mother and doesn't understand it, whose eyes speak of regret and confusion. Only a year before, Claude Monet painted a portrait of his wife lying on her deathbed. In the painting Camille Monet looks as though she is wrapped in a shroud, or covered by flowing water. Here is an image at once full of stillness but alive with motion, the body is still but life flows outwards towards the edge of the picture — it's a deeply meditative piece of art.

And it comes to mind that Monet, in a period of deep grief and loss, made what was in his career a rare decision: to paint other people. The artist forgot himself in contemplating the faces of his wife and his son, in depicting the faces of death and of incomprehension. And it struck me that we need icons like this — icons of incomprehension, reminders of the fragile self that, behind its virtual armour, is beset by doubt and demons.

Benedict Coleridge headshotBenedict Coleridge is a Eureka Street columnist and until recently worked as a policy researcher in Brussels. He will begin graduate study in political theory in September 2013. He can be followed on twitter at @Ben_Coleridge 

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Existing comments

I can think of nothing more incongruous to the flourishing of the human soul than spending one's life updating a Facebook or Linkedin profile, and/or writing constant Twitter updates to amuse 'followers'. Maybe commenting on blogs could also qualify! The very narcissistic nature of social media slavery is so much at odds with contemplating the outpouring of something slower and mellower in a great painting. I hope we never completely lose the capacity to warm ourselves by a gentler flame.
Pam | 08 August 2013

Reading a blog post the other day on spirits I chose to pass this on to many others. I related that one can find things to nourish the spirit or assault the spirit. That is the core of one’s self. But when an assault happens the mind tries to find ways to deal with this. Monet painted, others run and hide, choose to attack or write about the whole thing in memoirs decades later. Processing pain. By writing about the pain in the now, on social media, it is a way of processing the pain. It is like everyone’s pain and pleasure is out there. This may frighten the life out of a lot of people. But whatever works!
Jenny Esots | 09 August 2013

A beautiful contemplation on the subject of social media and the fragile self.
Walter Hamlton | 09 August 2013

for the last hundred years or so the medical profession has been possessed with material treatments. At the same time Churches have responded with an emphasis on the spiritual aspects of healing. On going back to Scripture both in the Old and New Testaments there are two sides to our beliefs. The one is worship of God who is transcendent and beyond human understanding. The other is a belief in human resilience expressed in prayer and various therapies.
John ozanne | 09 August 2013

This is a strong piece of writing that sets up current theories then carefully shows them wanting. The illusion of the self created on Facebook deserves more questioning than it receives. No doubt it is therapeutic in the short term but what else is Facebook doing but displaying the self that the individual wants other people to see, not the true self? When we move from the artificial online world of click icons to the icons we find in churches, this is a serious call to attention for the self. Unlike the click icon, that handles screens and images at never ending speed, the icon of orthodoxy is a grounded figure, an actual means to finding the true self. To become Christlike is to become more your true self and it is this course of discovery that is one of the actions of an icon: the icon is a means to prayer and self-knowledge.
PHILIP HARVEY | 10 August 2013

Far from being merely a narcissistic habit, I believe social media is a reflection/manifestation of all our neuroses. Ben's reflection on Monet's demons and the use of art/portraits brings to mind a painting/portrait by Edvard Munch in 1893 called 'The Scream'. It was used on the front cover of a book called The Primal Scream: The Cure for Neurosis in1970 by Arthur Janov. There was no social media back then and I wonder if Janov would see it as a good or bad substitute for screaming one's guts out to express the agony of life as a way towards healing.
AURELIUS | 13 August 2013

I am dealing with grief right now. I am incomprehensible to myself. Fragile is the only word left on the Rosetta Stone. I am buried deep beneath the virtual world in the germ laden soil of The Anonymous Mulch.Thank you for digging me up for a moment. Thank you for your beautiful piece.
Kim Coull | 03 September 2013


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