"The creation of art is not the fulfillment of a need but the creation of a need.
The world never needed Beethoven's Fifth Symphony until he created it. Now we could not live without it."

-Louis I. Kahn, Architect

Sunday, 15 September 2013

Did Beethoven's "Immortal Beloved" die?

The “Immortal Beloved” (German: Unsterbliche Geliebte) is the mysterious addressee of a love letter which Ludwig van Beethoven (1770 – 1827) wrote on 6–7 July 1812. The apparently unsent letter was found in the composer's estate after his death and remains a mystery until now (a film was made after this).
The Third Letter
Though still in bed, my thoughts go out to you, my Immortal Beloved, now and then joyfully, then sadly, waiting to learn whether or not fate will hear us - I can live only wholly with you or not at all - Yes, I am resolved to wander so long away from you until I can fly to your arms and say that I am really at home with you, and can send my soul enwrapped in you into the land of spirits - Yes, unhappily it must be so - You will be the more contained since you know my fidelity to you. No one else can ever possess my heart - never - never - Oh God, why must one be parted from one whom one so loves.
But how could he call her “my Immortal Beloved”? Was she “immortal”, i.e. non-human, not made of flesh?

In contrast, French poet Charles Baudelaire (1821 – 67) had a very different view on that question: he viewed his beloved lady as just made of flesh whose fate is all too known: decay and death, describing this with the most ghastly spectacle in his poem “Une Charogne" (A “Carcass” or “Rotting Corpse”), published in Fleurs du mal / Flowers of Evil, 1857. Here his poem starts:
My love, do you recall the object which we saw,
That fair, sweet, summer morn!
At a turn in the path a foul carcass
On a gravel strewn bed, 
Its legs raised in the air, like a lustful woman,
Burning and dripping with poisons,
Displayed in a shameless, nonchalant way
Its belly, swollen with gases. 
He concludes his poem with:  
Yes! thus will you be, queen of the Graces,
After the last sacraments,
When you go beneath grass and luxuriant flowers,
To molder among the bones of the dead. 
Then, O my beauty! say to the worms who will
Devour you with kisses,
That I have kept the form and the divine essence
Of my decomposed love!
Charles Baudelaire

How different this poem is when compared to Beethoven’s letters to his “Immortal Beloved”! In Beethoven’s mind, unlike in Baudelaire’s, she is not supposed to decay, since she is “immortal”. Is she then real? If so, where is she now as an “immortal” being?

Both artists suffered physically with poor health. Beethoven suffered from tinitus resulting in deafness by his 30th birthday High lead concentrations in Beethoven's hair were found in independent analyses. This is evidence that Beethoven had lead poisoning which may have caused his life-long illnesses, impacted his personality, and possibly contributed to his death. Later in life, possibly due to heavy drinking, he developed liver disease.

Baudelaire suffered with gonorrhea and had picked up syphilis, the disease that was probably the cause of his own death. His long-term use of laudanum (a tincture of opium), his life of stress, drink and poverty had taken a toll and Baudelaire had aged noticeably.

I cannot help but compare Baudelaire’s view with a Damien Hirst’s obsession with decaying death. His rotting sharks’ installations were entitled: “The Physical Impossibility of Death in the Mind of Someone Living.”

In my coming book, I so called my first chapter:  “Is something Rotten in the State of Contemporary Art?”, paraphrasing here Shakespeare’s Hamlet.
Quoting myself:
It is now fair to say that anyone could be an artist. It is no longer necessary to ask whether this or that could be a work of art since the answer would always be yes. Since Marcel Duchamp's "readymades", artists are taught to believe they have now the license to call anything art, so long, and this is the "key argument", they call it "art." This is a “circular reasoning”: an "artist" is called so because s/he does "art." How do we know this is "art"? Well... because s/he says it is! This is "circular reasoning," i.e. a "logical fallacy". So since anything could now be called art, logically anyone can call him/herself an artist! Therefore if "anything" can be called "art", so "nothing is art". We are indeed witnessing an end-of-art situation. A smell of corpses, so well symbolised by Damien Hirst's rotting sharks or cows he calls "art".
Beethoven, as an artist was very different. Despite the odds, and like a Stephen Hawking but unlike a Baudelaire or a Hirst, Beethoven had a non-cynical optimistic view on human life and fate.

It is the same difference between needing to touch someone physically and touching someone‘s heart. Baudelaire was obsessed with touching his "beloved one" physically, never her cheart. He was often comparing women to prostitutes. Unsurprisingly he suffered from syphilis. Beethoven maybe never met his "Immortal Beloved" or touched her "physicially" yet he is "touching" us.
Yes his "beloved" is “immortal”, as is his art because it is still touching our hearts today.

As French poet Antoine de Saint-Exupery (1900-44) once wrote:
“It is only with the heart that one can see rightly; what is essential is invisible to the eye.”
Le Petit Prince, Chapter 21 (1943) 

I know, I am a painter...

In 1812, when Beethoven wrote his love letters to his "Immortal Beloved", he had just completed his 7th Simphony... the theme at the end of John Boorman's film "Zardoz" when "Zed" (Sean Connery) and Consuella (Charlotte Rampling) escape their "immortality" to experience a mortal life.

Beethoven on his deathbed

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