“Spontaneous overflow”

About a year or so ago, after visiting the Musée d’Orsay in Paris – a gallery crammed to the brim with masterpieces – I found myself writing, despite my lack of anything resembling qualification or expertise on the matter, on Manet’s L’Olympia. The post turned out to be quite a jokey one. There was another post I wanted to write on another of the masterpieces in that gallery, but, after the first few drafts, I gave up on it: the nature of this painting is such that it demands from the viewer, and from the commentator, a serious engagement with the deepest and the most unvarnished of human emotions, and I felt I wasn’t up to it. Jokey posts are fairly easy to write, but serious writing on intense, naked emotions I find far more difficult: when I read over my early drafts, they appeared to me merely mawkish, and insincere. However, a year later, I thought it was time for another attempt. So if this post too, dear reader, appears mawkish or insincere, do please put it down to my lack of skill as a writer, and to nothing else.

The painting in question is Monet’s painting of his wife, Camille, on her deathbed. It was painted in 1879, when he was 39, and his dying wife merely 32. Monet painted it even as his beloved wife lay there, breathing her last. Many years later, Monet himself had wondered how he could have done it. How could he have been so callous? How could he have focussed on colours, on light, on composition, on brush-strokes, on all those things that artists concern themselves with, when his beloved wife was dying right in front of him?


“Camille Monet on her deathbed”, by Claude Monet, 1879, courtesy Musée d’Orsay in Paris

And yet he wasn’t callous. For people like me, lacking all artistic talent, it is impossible to know just what goes on in those minds possessed not merely of talent, but of genius. But I would hazard a guess that Monet painted his dying wife because he had to. It is merely the dilettante who first feels, and then sets out to give expression to what they had felt: for someone like Monet, I’d conjecture that the distance between the feeling and the expression of that feeling is much shorter: possibly, it doesn’t exist at all.

There are other examples of this sort of thing – the sort of thing that to the rest of us may well appear callous and unfeeling. Bach, I gather, composed the aria “Schlummert Ein” (from the cantata Ich Habe Genug) while the corpse of his son was lying cold in the next room. Janáček, who has claims to being the finest composer of operas of the 20th century, was fascinated by speech patterns and intonations, and had developed his own means of notating these; and, when his beloved daughter was dying, he found himself at her bedside, notating her groans and her cries of pain. All these examples sound callous, but I wonder whether they are. I have heard it said, for instance, that Tchaikovsky couldn’t have been tearing his hair out when he composed his emotionally distraught 6th symphony, as he wouldn’t be able to work out the harmonies and the counterpoint while tearing his hair out; but maybe, just maybe, working out these harmonies and counterpoint was his way of tearing his hair out. And so, Bach’s aria, Janáček’s notations, Monet’s painting, are not, for these artists, expressions of their grief so much as the thing itself: this is how these people tore their hair out.

All this is, I appreciate, conjecture. I will never be privileged enough to know what it is exactly that goes on in the mind of a genius.

Monet’s painting of his dying wife, even if we did not know the circumstances in which it was painted, is heart-rending. It is a painting of a parting, a final parting. The face, now seemingly unaware even of the presence of the viewer, seems already beyond human reach, disappearing fast into an ever-thickening, impenetrable mist. “Il y a un moment, dans les séparations, où la personne aimée n’est déjà plus avec nous,” Flaubert had written in L’Education Sentimentale (“There comes a moment in parting when the person we love is no longer with us”). Monet has captured here this very moment. The face is becoming at this moment a mere lifeless object, like the pillow upon which her head rests, and which Monet has painted as if it were a snow-covered hill.

This is certainly not the “emotion recollected in tranquillity” of Wordsworth’s formulation. It is, however, worth considering these well-known words in their proper context:

I have said that poetry is the spontaneous overflow of powerful feelings: it takes its origin from emotion recollected in tranquillity: the emotion is contemplated till, by a species of reaction, the tranquillity gradually disappears, and an emotion, kindred to that which was before the subject of contemplation, is gradually produced, and does itself actually exist in the mind. In this mood successful composition generally begins, and in a mood similar to this it is carried on…

  • William Wordsworth, from the preface to the 1800 edition of Lyrical Ballads

Wordsworth is clearly not suggesting that poetry should be created while in a state of tranquillity: quite the contrary – he says that it should be created when the poet in an emotional state similar to (“kindred to”) the emotions being depicted. The point of recollecting “in tranquillity” is to produce again in the poet’s mind emotions similar to those the poet is setting out to depict.  For only then can the overflow of powerful feelings, which Wordsworth contends is the very essence of poetry, be spontaneous. So if Tchaikovsky, say, is depicting emotional states of mind that are tormented and turbulent, he must, even while composing it, even while working out the harmonies and the counterpoint, be feeling something that is at least kindred to that torment and that turbulence. Otherwise, how can that overflow of powerful feelings be spontaneous?

Wordsworth does, however, qualify his formulation with the word “generally”: “In this mood successful composition generally begins…” (my italics). And I wonder, in view of Bach’s aria, in view of Monet’s painting, whether, in some cases, that spontaneous overflow of powerful feelings can occur not as a consequence of recollecting afterwards in tranquillity emotions previously felt, but even at the very moment the artist is feeling these emotions for the first time.

I don’t know. These are merely conjectures on my part, as the workings of creative minds remain a mystery to me. But, given that Monet himself had wondered how he could have painted his dying wife even as she lay dying, it could be that these things are mysteries to artists also.

5 responses to this post.

  1. Posted by Izzy on April 28, 2018 at 11:33 am

    A very beautiful, sensitive post, Himadri. Not being an artistic genius, I have no answer to that mystery. And it appears that Monet didn’t either, or he wouldn’t have wondered at his own (supposed) callousness. Geniuses might have a very personal way of dealing with pain, or they might be “possessed” by their art in the most unlikely moments, who knows ?


    • Hello Izzy, and thank you for this. Maybe it’s a reflection on myself, but I find it difficult writing posts such as this: I always fear I’m getting too pious, or too sentimental. Far easier writing a few jokes, and being tongue-in-cheek!

      But yes, that Monet painting did make a very strong impression on me when I saw it, and while it presents a mystery that is perhaps unfathomable, it is hard not to speculate on the matter.


  2. Posted by caromalc on April 30, 2018 at 2:44 am

    Just after I read your post, Himadri, I was listening to our radio talking to a BBC talk with Richard Flanagan who wrote The Narrow Road to the Deep North about the POWs (oddly just as I wrote that the radio in front of me mentioned POWs) working on the Burmese – Thai road in WWII which was a very gruelling read for me, but so powerful. He wrote mostly about one of the POWs and his love and the cruelty they suffered, but he also had episodes where he wrote from the Japanese commander’s point of view and showed how the Japanese were just concerned about honouring their emperor and if took unspeakable actions so be it.

    Flanagan was asked about how he felt during the writing and he said something along the lines of he just wrote and didn’t think about his feelings at all – it wasn’t the job of novelists to feel emotional about what they were writing.

    It sounds like that was a similar situation with Monet.


    • Hello Caroline, good to hear from you!

      As I say, I honestly have no idea what goes on in the minds of these extraordinarily gifted and creative people. It could well be, as Flanagan says, that they have to detach themselves emotionally in order to create. But was speculating – merely speculating, and no more – that, sometimes, the artist isn’t detached. That, as Wordsworth put it, in order to depict an emotion, the artist has to recollect the emotion to the extent that “the tranquillity gradually disappears, and an emotion, kindred to that which was before the subject of contemplation, is gradually produced”. As I say, I honestly do not know. And probably, there is no general rule in these matters: different artists work in different ways, depending upon their individual temperaments.

      As a reader – or as a viewer, or a listener – I tend to find myself more responsive to works that engage emotions directly rather than to works conceived and executed in what appears to be a studied detachment. But that’s just appearances: what was going on in the artists’ minds at the point of creation, heaven only knows!


  3. I don’t claim to be anything of an artist in the way of Monet, but as a novelist, I’ve found over the years that I habitually use the writing of fiction as a way to think about the world, a way to analyze and argue (I guess these days we’d say “process”) what’s going on. My novelist/poet friends are the same way, as are some of my friends who work in the visual/plastic arts. So perhaps painting a portrait of his dying wife was the way Monet was able to engage intellectually and emotionally with her death, and the detachment of the artist-at-work was necessary for the immersion of the man into his personal and private emotions? I often think that for creative artists, the process of creation is what really matters, and the artwork is merely a by the way artifact, a record of the act of creation but not the real point of it. Museums, theaters, concert halls, libraries, etc are all filled with the byproducts of creativity, the proof that something significant happened, elsewhere. Is one way of looking at it.


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