Frames /sing

kvond

“Picturing” Spinoza

Spinoza’s Curtains

I want to you picture Spinoza, I mean really picture him. With a thinker who wrote like Spinoza wrote, in the cool of propositions stacked into a perceptual mental lens, it is easy not to picture him, to let him be in soft focus there, vaguely so, half-formed with serious, quiet eyes, perhaps one sees him a little stooped though actually he died in his forties. He is as if a blurred object seen through an antique telescope, from a long way off, its exact figure not quite important yet. We say things like, he was a Jew, a Sephardic Jew, or that he likely died from the inhalations of glass-dust from his grinding, but what is it that we SEE? Because, even when we don’t think that we are seeing something, that we are only looking at his ideas, we still are looking…unclearly.

So picture him. Let me take up some of the things that we mostly know from Colerus’s biography; at least as we know enough to paint a picture.

He was dark, not white. His hair was black and curled. His eyebrows were long. Can you see the moiling, come from below, Portugal, from Moor-land? He wore a cloak with a knife slash in it, one that he refused to repair, come from an assault on his life in Amsterdam just as he was ex-communicated. He wore a ring on his hand that bore a rose, and the word “caute”, caution, for his name meant “thorny”. Though very tidy, his dress was so mean in quality he could not be distinguished from the poor of the city at a glance, and even told a visiting dignitary, when he refused to change out of his morning-robe, that it is was worthless to wrap things of little value in finery. Unromantically, he would hunt spiders, and place them in the same web to watch them fight like warring men. So ridiculous did it strike him he would sometimes burst out in laughter. Or he would place flies in the web to see the reactions. The accidents of spiderwebs kept him company. Yet he would chat at length to his landlady or others of the house when they took sick, comforting them, keeping them company, and though he did not believe in a God that was a customary God, he would lecture children about going to church, the good it was for them. One can see those of the house returning on a Sunday, the this dark-skinned fellow asking them about the sermon, and what they might have learned. He was both inside and outside the house. Close, but far. His room was an upstairs room.

He had red curtains in his room, so there was always a red tinge to the light that poured into the mornings where he slept. He kept a very meager diet, sometimes eating only milk-soup with butter and a pot of beer, or just gruel with raisins for the day. When the sound of his lens-grinding was not penetrating the house, they of the house would know that he was noiselessly in room with his studies, sometimes smoking his pipe. So things must have been, an alternation of harsh, industrical grinding of glass, and impossible stillness behind the door; and yet when things became to cabin-fevered he would come out, and stretch his legs, and talked of the things of the day with those around. His conversation was sweet and easy, almost country. He was calm, never melancholy. Though many were his invitations to dinners, offers for monies and support, he preferred to stay at home, like a serpent who has swallowed its tale, he said. So recursive was his mind.

And he loved to draw, to draw those that visited him, the well-known and the less so. Thus he was an artist, and would sketch with marked accuracy in either ink or with charcoal. A fisherman with but his shirt and his net drapped over his shoulder is even said to be a portrait of himself: Spinoza as fisherman, this is how he saw himself, a man and a net at work. He had grown up a block from Rembrandt’s house and studio.

And at times he would stare at his hand with a magnifying glass he personally had ground with his lathe, and declare how freakish it looked, or with a microscope look at and enumerate all the various parts of an insect. We can imagine that he looked through his acquaintance Huygens’ telescope, on a rare visit to the estate some five minutes walk from his house, and in evening/midnight looked at the rings of Saturn, and its moon that Christiaan had discovered a decade earlier. We can hear him asthmatically breathing as he climbed the stairs to a certain balcony, as for nearly his whole adult life had had respiration problems, with Huygens’ clear, cultured voice ringing out explaining what they were about to see.

He came down from his room on the day he died, not remaining in his room, to lay in the house in the Bedstead that had been set out for him, in the company of his physician, while those of the house were at church.

 

 

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2 responses to ““Picturing” Spinoza

  1. Barrett Pashak June 19, 2008 at 1:30 pm

    I like this portrait by Rembrandt of a young Jewish scholar: http://i1.tinypic.com/mj26f5.jpg.
    I think it comes pretty close to giving us a great image of Spinoza. I also like this photo of a statue of Spinoza: http://constantinbrunner.info/pix/spinoza.gif.

    There is a book on the subject of Spinoza’s portrayal in art. It is Spinoza im Porträt, by Ernst Altkirch.

  2. kvond June 20, 2008 at 1:59 pm

    Yes. I read even the hypothesis that this would be Spinoza himself. We all have our ways of looking at Spinoza I suppose, and seeing Spinoza as young Jewish Scholar is one of them. For me I think quite interesting is that Colerus makes the point of Spinoza’s dark complexion, and that his looks clearly made him of Portuguese Jewish descent. Part of looking at Spinoza now, I believe, is looking at his color. That is, much as how his ideas were not transparent to those around him, so too he was not “transparent” either. His minority status marked him, from the skin on out. This is just something that we lose when we stare straight into his ethica, and the bare nudity of his ideas.

    There is a double reflection that must be accomplished. The first is that his ideas were not transparent because he was not transparent. But also, his ideas were produced because and through his non-transparency. I think that seeing him as a “young Jewish scholar” does something to undermine this understanding (but like I said, we all have our ways of seeing him). He had been a young Jewish scholar, but then he was excommunicated, (possibly with an attempt on his life). The familiarity with which we want to look at him, the softness of the focus, I think actually is a mis-seeing of his person. It was for this reason that I included the eyes of a moor from Velasquez in the post, not because he looked like this, but to give a sense of just who much he did not look like how we usually, and comfortably imagine him,, particularly in the eyes of the cultured elite (Oldenburg, Huygens, Leibniz, etc) with whom he sometimes intercoursed.

    Thank you for your thoughts and links, in particular Ernst Altkirch’s book, which I had not looked at.

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