Sunday, April 14, 2024

Saint Sebastian's Abyss


I just read Saint Sebastian’s Abyss by Mark Haber, published in 2022.   I was misled by reviewers who implied that much was to be learned about art history in Haber’s book.  That is true if much is to be learned about cooking from Jonathan’s Swift’s A Modest Proposal. 

Haber is poking fun at art critics who early on in their careers decide that what they have to say about art (or literature, etc.) is more important than what a painter (or poet) accomplishes. The narrator declares, “Schmidt and I were quenchless and insatiable when it came to the end of the world.” The Science Fiction Youtube critic, Moid Moidelhoff, frequently declares “I love the end of the world.”  Perhaps in his case, since he is an atheist, he means that he loves books about the end of the world.  But Schmidt and the Narrator (also atheists) are equally obscure about their love of the end of the world; although it seems most probable that Haber intends the “abyss” in the title of painting, “Saint Sebastian’s Abyss” to refer to the end of the world.  If so, given the nihilistic ending of his novel, Haber believes the end of the world to be a whimper rather than a bang – at least in the narrator’s opinion if not in Schmidt’s.

The narrator writes an opinion Schmidt shares, “Our classmates were only interested in becoming painters, which was preposterous since nothing good had been painted since the death of Cezanne in 1906.”

We do hear in our modern times that what is being done artistically, musically, poetically, etc. is inferior to the great accomplishments of artists and composers of the past.  Harold Bloom declared that Shakespeare, most importantly in his Hamlet, created “what we mean by “human.”  We aren’t willing to let go of Shakespeare or Rembrandt or Bach, Bloom wrote of the anxiety of influence serious poets and writers feel.  

So, what shall we think when Haber’s narrator declares, “Painting, I told Schmidt, admittedly to impress him, was a fool’s errand because painting had died with Cezanne in 1906 and to pursue painting was like pursuing an obsolete skill, becoming a chimney sweep or a town crier?”  This isn’t a judgement critics can legitimately make.  Of course they can and do, but creation is beyond them.  They, if they are any good, have studied their fields and have a good understanding of what the creations of genuine artists look like, and use these understandings to judge the works of new artists.  Only the most negative among them would declare that nothing good has been painted since 1906, written since Shakespeare, or composed since Brahms.

The narrator’s second wife, much to the outrage of Schmidt if not the narrator became a famous art critic.  She wrote a very successful biography of Paul Klee, perhaps achieving more critical adulation than Schmidt inasmuch as he was offended by her.  She in the course of things couldn’t abide the narrator’s overriding preoccupation with Saint Sebastian’s Abyss and left him.

Mark Habor in this novel has written what might be termed a poetic criticism of critics.  One cannot challenge them on facts because their stock and trade are their opinions.  The most successful and deft swing verbal sabers lopping off the heads of presumptive artists who create works that challenge their opinions.  Schmidt believed he had solved the meaning of the mysterious three initials affixed to Saint Sebastian’s Abyss, but dies before he can give the information to the narrator.  The narrator spends three years trying to find out the answer on his own but is unsuccessful.  Blinded Beckenbauer, the painter of Saint Sebastian’s Abyss created at least this one painting that is revered by many, but what has the snobbish Schmidt and the narrator achieved if their critical theories are determined to have no lasting significance.  

Beyond these matters, as reprehensible as Beckenbauer might be, and as out of touch with celebrity as modern artists would find him, he was so devoted to his art that he lost his eyesight in its pursuit.  But the narrator tells us he painted because it was the easiest way he had to make money.   

Saint Sebastian was in fact a great evangelist who was martyred twice for his efforts, the first time with arrows, which didn't kill him.  After he recovered, he went to Diocletian to warn him of his sins and was beaten to death.  Why in Haber's novel did Beckenbauer choose Saint Sebastian as the subject for a painting? Saint Sebastian was considered the Saint that protected the faithful against the plague and Beckenbauer suffered from syphilis which may have been considered a plague in Beckenbauer's day -- in Haber's mind.  It seems ironic that Saint Sebastian, a famous believer during early Christian times, martyred twice for his beliefs should be chosen by those featured by atheists in Haber's novel.   May we assume that Haber is an atheist as well?  If he is not that would be one more irony ladled from this novel. 

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