A FEW WORDS ON THE CAPTIVE
Cultural Discourse / John David Ebert
Emma Tooth’s 2012 painting “The Captive” is a reworking of a 1778 painting by Joseph Wright of Derby, also entitled “The Captive,” which portrays a man, possibly a foreign traveller, who has been imprisoned in a dungeon. The dungeon recalls a cave, and the only source of light is slanting in through a barred window from the outside. The man is tied to the wall by a chain manacled to his foot, and the pose which Wright has chosen to portray him is that of Michelangelo’s Adam from the Sistine Chapel, who is just about to be awakened into the life of the Spirit by the descent of the human-brain shaped image of Yahweh that is reaching down to him from above. Great things are in store for Adam, who is now pregnant with the entire future of human civilization. Adam’s left knee is raised into the shape of a triangle, and in the distance just beyond him, Michelangelo has indicated the outlines of a river, implying that Yahweh has only just finished digging Adam up out of wet riverine mud.
Michelangelo’s reference to the riverrine mud is an interesting one, because with it he manages to preserve the ghost of a very much more ancient myth underlying those of Genesis, which the Hebrews had inherited from Mesopotamia, and in which the first human beings were imagined as scooped up out of the mud of the Tigris river bank by the creator goddess Belet-ili, after which Enki then infused them with life. The implications of all these myths is that the human being is not just simply one being among other beings, but that he is rather a project that must be accomplished, a task which requires the agencies of spiritual processes which must fashion the human Dasein in such a way as to be capable of producing higher things (i.e. those beyond the mere needs of animal existence).
In Emma Tooth’s painting, the male protagonist who lounges on the couch is represented in the pose of Michelangelo’s Adam, but the irony of his upraised knee is precisely that he has failed in his task of contributing to the building of the human spiritual project of Transcendence...
The shape of Adam’s upraised knee, furthermore, alludes vaguely back to another and even earlier creation myth: that of the Egyptian cosmogony, in which the heavens are separated from the earth in pictorial form as Geb, the earth god with upraised knee, and his consort Nut, the starry goddess of the night sky who hovers above him (shown below). Geb was an earth god, and his upraised knee was meant to represent the Egyptian pyramid, a reference to the appearance of the first hillock to emerge after the recession of the flooding of the Nile waters, which is echoed in the Book of Genesis as Mount Ararat, the first mountain to appear as the floodwaters begin to reside. In the prototype of that text, the flood myth as recounted in the Gilgamesh epic of about 1700 BC, the top of the mountain becomes the site of a sacred covenant made between the gods and human beings. The mountain, in other words, becomes the place for the inception of human civilization, a task that will require the cooperation of both human and divine powers.
In Emma Tooth’s painting, the male protagonist who lounges on the couch is represented in the pose of Michelangelo’s Adam, but the irony of his upraised knee is precisely that he has failed in his task of contributing to the building of the human spiritual project of Transcendence. The spark of spiritual energy which Yahweh is about to impart to Adam in the Sistine Chapel is here replaced by the remote control in the male’s left hand, which emits tiny electromagnetic pulse signals that change the channels on the television that he is watching. The collaboration between man and god at the top of the mountain is here replaced in devolved and degenerate form as the interaction between the temporal human and the realm of electromagnetic pulse signals that he has constructed around himself as a sort of photoluminescent cavern of energy that has rendered him entirely uncreative, and drained him of life and vitality. Tooth’s protagonist isn’t busy building anything: he has become a victim of Adorno’s Culture Industry and McLuhan’s global web of fast-as-light-speed signals that have paralyzed his mind with image overload, and rendered him completely inert. In other words, he has become as passive as Adam was before receiving the spark of the divine light imparted to him by Yahweh.
Tooth has here painted a bleak portrait of the state of torpor of the contemporary human trapped inside the recoding of Plato’s cave as an electronic Aladdin’s cavern of endless visual stimulation that leads only to numbness, paralysis and inactivity. The painting’s title also alludes to the captives in Plato’s myth of the cave, who are bound in place such that they mistake the shadows on the walls cast by the firelight behind them for substance and reality. The real reality lies elsewhere. Tooth’s protagonist, likewise, has mistaken shadow for substance, only in this case it is a realm of phantasmatic images projected at him from the Beyond of an electronic Otherworld, a two-dimensional realm of icons and celebrities that many such individuals mistake for a world of substance and reality. This is the realm, of course, of Baudrillard’s simulacra. It is modernity’s substitute for the realm of transcendent forms whose traditional purpose was to draw the human gaze upward in order to inspire the fashioning of cultural forms on the ground down below that would strive to imitate the divine models and prototypes provided by the gods. But the only such imaginary significations to be imitated by today’s denizen of Tooth’s dark cavern are the slick and glib advertisements of the flat phantom world of celebrities; or as T.S. Eliot would have called them, “shapes without Forms, shades without substance.”
Tooth has here painted a bleak portrait of the state of torpor of the contemporary human trapped inside the recoding of Plato’s cave as an electronic Aladdin’s cavern of endless visual stimulation that leads only to numbness, paralysis and inactivity...
Tooth’s painting, then, is simultaneously an encapturing and miniaturization of the entirety of Western civilization’s Dasein Project, but it is also the culminating and perhaps, final, image of its outcome: the project of imitating the divine forms has ironically ended up with the technological replication and conquest of Being and the end result is the production of modernity’s Depleted Man, a shadow of human potentiality drained away by too much tinkering and too many projects of mechanization. There is, in Tooth’s painting, nothing left to accomplish. Technology has conquered Being; the gods have been replaced by electronic pulse signals; the realm of Transcendence has been been displaced by the two-dimensional simulacrum; and now all that remains is to relax on the couch and surf through the channels.
A job, in other words, well done.
But the vector that began by pointing from Adam’s sleepily awakening torpor to Yahweh’s infusion of him with Visions and dreams of untold possibilities now runs the other way, and here Adam is sinking back into torpor once again. The bed in Tooth’s painting that rests with its tangled sheets in the corner implies that he is on the verge of turning in for the night. Adam is preparing, in other words, to regress back into the inertial slumber of the mineralogical consciousness of spiritual inactivity. In Hindu parlance, sattva guna is giving way to the complete conquest of tamas guna.
The West has grown tired.
And now it’s time for bed.