Tag Archives: Degas

Happiness as Portrayed by the Artists (Part 2)

I would like to turn to the great masters of the fine arts to further explore the achievement of happiness: Maslow’s final level of his hierarchy of needs, Csikszentmihalyi’s forging a unity with universal values, and the ability of Campbell’s hero to go back and forth between the everyday world and the spiritual world.

As I discussed in the previous post, Maslow, Csikszentmihalyi, and Campbell, the three modern thinkers presented in my book, teach that the fulfillment that is encountered upon reaching happiness is a completion of one’s destiny or mission in life.  The life that is experienced by those in true happiness is one free from all fears and human desires, competitiveness, striving, fatigue, and personal ambitions.

Let’s look at another master of the art world who depicts such a life of one who has achieved true happiness (has reached Maslow’s final level of the hierarchy, Csikszentmihalyi’s unity with universal values, and Campbell’s comfort with the everyday world as well as the spiritual world.

The Dance Class (Degas, 1874)

The Dance Class by Degas

Jules Perrot, the great dancer and ballet master of Europe, is teaching the class. The musicians have taken a break. All the girls are engaged in conversation, except one.   That one girl is seen dancing for the master. She is in a state of ecstasy. As she executes her pirouette, the viewer is uncertain as to the success of its execution; the tutu of the girl in the foreground hides the result. But the outcome does not matter; the master is seemingly enthralled by her enthusiasm and courage to come forward.

As expressed in the Eakins painting in the previous post, the master is standing apart from the others in the scene.  None of the other characters is looking at him.  Perhaps he is alone in a spiritual world, to return soon to the everyday world of his class.  He expresses autonomy, effortlessness, self-sufficiency, and a willingness to assist others.  He exists in both worlds and, as a result of his mastery, has been able to bring the boon of teaching and instruction to others.

The Call to Adventure – Part 2

A few posts ago, I mentioned that once the journey portion of life is completed, which is when each of us has achieved self-esteem, and before the beginning of the adventure to happiness, Joseph Campbell teaches that a call to adventure may be sent.  If the call is sent, three things can happen: 1) the call can be unrecognized, 2) the call can be ignored, or 3) the call can be accepted.

I presented three pieces of visual art by Degas, Munch, and Homer.  Each of the three pieces represented individuals living a life based on each of the three ways of accepting the call mentioned above.

Now, I would like to present three very well-known poems that depict a life lived based on the same three ways of accepting the call to adventure, as represented in the poets’ own artistic styles rather than the artistic styles of the painters.

The Road Not Taken (Robert Frost, 1920)

Two roads diverged in a yellow wood,

And sorry I could not travel both

And be one traveler, long I stood

And looked down one as far as I could

To where it bent in the undergrowth;

Then took the other, as just as fair,

And having perhaps the better claim

Because it was grassy and wanted wear,

Though as for that the passing there

Had worn them really about the same,

And both that morning equally lay

In leaves no step had trodden black.

Oh, I marked the first for another day!

Yet knowing how way leads on to way

I doubted if I should ever come back.

I shall be telling this with a sigh

Somewhere ages and ages hence:

Two roads diverged in a wood, and I,

I took the one less traveled by,

And that has made all the difference.

This famous and beautifully written poem by Frost is not what it seems.  One would think that it is inspirational in its suggestion that selecting the road less traveled is the path to happiness.  However, upon closer reading, the traveler in this poem sees two roads that diverge into the woods and both roads look identical in wear.  In addition, the traveler mentions that, “with a sigh,” he/she will recall in the future the “one less traveled by” was chosen at the fork in the road. 

This poem is one of disappointment by the traveler at not being offered the opportunity to see the less traveled path.  The traveler knows that selecting the less traveled path will “make all the difference” and is necessary if happiness is to be achieved.  Unfortunately for this traveler, such a less traveled path is never encountered.

The fork in the road of this poem is not that exceptional; it is just one of many everyday decisions that all of us make in our lives.  No call to adventure was ever given or, if it was given, the traveler never recognized it.  The traveler simply remains in the everyday world without the opportunity for adventure.  The traveler knows this to be his fate and realizes that in the future he will sigh with disappointment at not being given the opportunity for a more complete life.  Vividly represented is the resignation to the future of an everyday existence, similar to that expressed in the painting by Degas.

The Waste Land, 335-345 (T.S. Eliot, 1922)

If there were water we should stop and drink

Amongst the rock one cannot stop or think

Sweat is dry and feet are in the sand

If there were only water amongst the rock

Dead mountain of carious teeth that cannot spit

Here one can neither stand nor lie nor sit

There is not even silence in the mountains

But dry sterile thunder without rain

There is not even solitude in the mountains

But red sullen faces sneer and snarl

From doors of mud-cracked houses

This is a poem addressing the decline of civilization.  The feeling is one of spiritual loss, a world empty of hope, a life without purpose, a horrifying malaise in which each day simply flows into the next without any meaning or purpose.  Perhaps the sentiment of this poem best resembles that of the Munch painting.

Ulysses, 56-70 (Tennyson, 1833)

Come, my friends,

‘Tis not too late to seek a newer world.

Push off, and sitting well in order smite

The sounding furrows; for my purpose holds

To sail beyond the sunset, and the baths

Of all the western stars, until I die.

It may be that the gulfs will wash us down:

It may be we shall touch the Happy Isles,

And see the great Achilles, whom we knew

Though much is taken, much abides; and though

We are not now that strength which in old days

Moved earth and heaven; that which we are, we are;

One equal temper of heroic hearts,

Made weak by time and fate, but strong in will

To strive, to seek, to find, and not to yield.

Dramatic monologue is relied upon to convey a call to adventure.  While tired and slowed by advancing old age, Ulysses is ready to “strive, to seek, to find, and not to yield.” He calls his friends to join him and sail into a new adventure, an adventure into the unknown and possibly, “It may be that the gulfs will wash us down.”  We are not sure that his friends will join him but we have a sense that they will aid him if they do not join him.  While Ulysses appears more confident in his acceptance of the call to adventure than the girl in the Homer painting, both have made the decision to heed the call, most likely with the help of friends.

Next, the interpretations of life under the three different ways of accepting the call to adventure, as depicted by classical music composers.

The Call to Adventure

Once the journey is completed, which is when each of us has achieved self-esteem, and before the beginning of the adventure to happiness, a call to adventure may be sent.  If the call is sent, three things can happen: 1) the call can be unrecognized, 2) the call can be ignored, or 3) the call can be accepted.

The call is often unrecognized either due to laziness or a lack of attention.  The lack of attention can be due to distractions or the belief that there is not such thing as a call or summons to the adventure; as such, one does not need to be attentive to the call.  Joseph Campbell, author of The Hero with a Thousand Faces, and The Power of Myth series on TV, teaches those who do not recognize the call, if sent, will progress no further and will lead an ordinary life and inconsequential life, with no chance for an adventure.

If the call is recognized and eventually ignored, Campbell teaches that the individual will be denied the adventure and will lead a life of torment and despair.  This life is much worse that that lived by those who do not recognize the call.

Finally, if the call is accepted, according to Campbell the individual will be offered a chance for an adventure that, if successful, will lead to happiness.

The great artists recognized the above actions regarding the call long before Campbell’s research.  These artists portrayed these teachings in their own artistic ways.  For example:

The everyday existence of those who did not recognize the call, or never were sent a call to adventure is seen in the following work by Degas:

The Absinthe Drinker by Degas

This painting’s intent was not to depict the debilitating effects of alcohol consumption.  Rather, the artist was capturing the psychological isolation of people in public.  Both characters convey boredom with their lives and are situated at the top right of the frame, contributing to their lack of involvement with society.  The characters do not seem in any hurry and appear resigned to their reality.  Perhaps this is the artist’s conception of an everyday existence.

The daily existence of torment and despair of those who recognize the call and then reject it is portrayed in the following work by Munch:

The Scream by Munch

This painting is one of the most recognizable in the world.  It is a visualization of fear, the kind of terrifying fear felt in a nightmare.  The long wavy lines carry the fear to all corners of the canvas.  Behind the main character are two walkers on a road unaffected by the curves of the fear: even the railing is straight and unaffected.  These walkers seem to exist in a separate world from the main character.  This is a painting whose true subject is separation from others, literally, emotionally, and psychologically: a vivid representation of the refusal of the call. 

The acceptance of the call and the willingness to forge into the unknown adventure is best portrayed in the following work by Homer:

The Morning Bell by Homer

This picture presents extraordinary subtlety.  The painting presents the path, previously taken, leading to the fork in the road where the girl is standing.  She appears to have made her decision to journey upward along the road less traveled.  The sunlight is bathing the girl in warmth.  The picture does not show us where the girl is traveling except that it is an upward climb into the distance.  The group on the right appears to be providing the force moving the plank upward so that the girl can reach the path leading to the left of the scene.  Perhaps this is the artist’s interpretation of the acceptance of the call, with aid from the group of girls, and entrance into the unknown, willingly accepted.

Next post, the poets’ interpretations.