EN3246   Literature and the Other Arts: Poetry and Painting

Rajeev S. Patke



Lecture 4  David Dabydeen, Turner (2002)

    ©Pieter Vandermeer

Biographical information: http://www.poetryinternational.org/cwolk/view/15897

"Dabydeen's long poem Turner was inpired by the painting Slave Traders Ditching the Dead and the Dying with Hurricane Approaching by the English painter William Turner (1775-1851). John Ruskin, the famous art critic, possessed this picture for a while, but he found the scene so horrifying that he traded it for another painting. The horror is certainly part of Dabydeen's 600-verse poem. It tells the story of a still- or nearly still-born child of a slave girl and a slave-trader captain, a little boy thrown overboard and either drowning or surviving, either below or above the sea's surface, coming ashore from time to time and living the life of a slave, or joining the followers of an African prophet."

"About Turner, Dabydeen himself has this to say: 'My poem focusses on the sunken head of the African in the foreground of Turner's picture. In Turner's seas (and in those of other painters) it has been drowned for centuries. When it wakes up, it can only partially recall the sources of its life, so it invents a body, a biography, and it populates an imaginary landscape.'"

Central Library:  Chp. 5 from Tobias Döring, Caribbean-English passages: intertexuality in a postcolonial tradition   (2002): PR9900 Wes*D 2002    [RBR]
Central Library:  Karen McIntyre, "Necrophilia or Still birth? David Dabydeen's Turner". In The Art of David Dabydeen. Ed. Kevin Grant (1997). PR9900 Wes.Da*A 1997  [RBR]
Online: Sarah Fulford, "David Dabydeen and Turner’s Sublime Aesthetic": http://scholar.library.miami.edu/anthurium/volume_3/issue_1/fulford-daviddabydeen.htm



2    Joseph Mallord William Turner (1775-1851)


 J.M.W. Turner: The Slave Ship (1840), Boston Museum of Fine Arts

Another version of the image (detail):

Click the image to close this window

Link: http://www.scottzagar.com/arthistory/timelines.php?page=event&e_id=1412

TURNER: Artchive

TURNER: Web Gallery of Art



6    TOPICS 


1.  The Slave Trade, the British system of indentured labour, and Dabydeen's ancestry as well as sense of implicatedness in the colonial context.

From the latter part of the fifteenth century, the Portuguese and the Spanish, followed by the British, the Dutch, and the French, set up a thriving slave trade between the Atlantic coast of Africa and markets for slave labour in the Americas and the Caribbean. Herbert Klein estimates that this trade transported over 9 million Africans to the Americas between 1662 and 1867 (1999: 208-9); John Iliffe puts the figure for the entire period from 1450 to 1900 at over 11 million (1995: 131), as does Johannes Postma (2003: 35-6). Of these, over 5 million were exported by carriers from Portugal and Spain, and over 3 million by carriers from Britain. Over half of the total number was shipped in the eighteenth century. Ten to twenty percent died in the crossing. By the middle of the nineteenth century, the population of Africa was about half of what it might have been without the slave trade. Britain, the nation that profited the most from the trade, abolished commerce in slaves from 1807, and passed an Act of Abolition in 1833 (the French followed in 1848, the Spaniards in 1886).

2.  The tradition of landscape painting; the topographical tradition in English poetry: their role as remote background for the painter and the poet.

      Grove's Online Dictionary of Art: The concept of the Sublime: http://www.joh.net/phd/appendices/texts/sublimegove.html

      The Tate Online: Sublime Landscape http://www.tate.org.uk/servlet/CollectionDisplays?roomid=1904

3.  The sublime: its Romantic manifestations and its treatment by Ruskin.

     THE SUBLIME: a definition/description of the term.

      The Victorian Web site on "The Sublime": http://www.victorianweb.org/philosophy/sublime/sublimeov.html

     George P. Landow on Ruskin and the Sublime: http://www.victorianweb.org/authors/ruskin/atheories/3.1.html

      "Turner, whose deathbed utterance is reputed to have been "The Sun is God," clearly held the views about light and color which his chief advocate attributed to him (Quoted by Lindsay, Turner, 213). In particular, the painter employed color with precise allegorical or symbolical intentions. The first volume of Modern Painters describes the "crimson and scarlet" of The Slave Ship as a judgment upon the guilty vessel: "It labours amidst the lightning of the sea, its thin masts written upon the sky in lines of blood, girded with condemnation in that fearful hue which signs the sky with horror, and mixes its flaming flood with the sunlight, and, cast far along the desolate heave of the sepulchral waves, incarnadines the multitudinous sea" (3.572). In the notes to the Turner Bequest he points out that the lines the artist appended to War, another crimson work, "are very important, being the only verbal expression of that association in his mind of sunset colour with blood . . .:

'Ah, thy tent-formed shell is like
A soldier's nightly bivouac, alone
Amidst a sea of blood. — ' (13.160)

By the last volume of Modern Painters he had found other corroboration and explained that "the very sign in heaven itself which, truly understood, is the type of love, was to Turner the type of death. The scarlet of the clouds was his symbol of destruction. In his mind it was the colour of blood. So he used it in the Fall of Carthage. Note his own written words —

While o'er the western wave the ensanguined sun,
In gathering huge a stormy signal spread,
And set portentous

So he used it in the Slaver, in the Ulysses, in the Napoleon [War], in the Goldau" (7.437-438n). As Ruskin probably knew from arranging the Turner Bequest, the artist had made this association between sunset crimson and blood as early as his 1806-1808 sketchbook in which he wrote the words "Fire and blood" over a setting sun (Sunset Ship, 25).
     Perhaps most important to our investigation is the fact that both men shared the belief that the worship of Mammon destroyed nations and was threatening England. "O Gold," one of the artist's manuscript poems, relates "Chaotic strife, elemental uproar wide" (101) to the love of money, while his painting of William III's arrival in England bore the following note: "The yacht in which His Majesty sailed was, after many changes and services, finally wrecked on Hamburg Sands, while employed in the Hull Trade." Lindsay points out that "even when expressing what he considers a high moment of Liberty, Turner reminds us of the twist that distorts men's aims and hopes; the triumphant ship of Liberty is wrecked in the end as the mere instrument of trade" (62n). One may add that Turner's mention in another poem of "Shipowners frown/ Gingling their money" (112) would support Lindsay's interpretation. The clearest indication that Turner espoused Ruskin's attitudes toward the effects of greed and gold appear in the last lines of the poem he appended to The Slave Ship: "Hope, Hope, fallacious Hope!/ Where is thy market now?" One must agree with Lindsay that this painting attacks not only the already dying slave trade but also English society, a society joined by the cash-nexus, as well (51). Whether or not one wishes to accept the interpretation of this particular painting, one must admit that Turner's continual connection in his Carthage series of greed, luxury, and corruption as the cause of national decay demonstrates that painter and critic hold the same moral attitudes, condemnation of Mammon, and estimate of its effect on past and present times."

     Turner and the Sublime: http://www.victorianweb.org/philosophy/sublime/turner.html

     Turner and the Sublime: The natural sublime: http://www.liverpoolmuseums.org.uk/walker/exhibitions/turner/sublime.asp

4.  The modern/postmodern perspective on the sublime: Lyotard; Theodor Adorno's notion: "no poetry after Auschwitz"; Walter Benjamin's notion that all documents of culture are also documents of barbarism: the application of such ideas to the esteem in which Turner is held in England.

  • "There is no document of civilization which is not at the same time a document of barbarism. And just as such a document is not free of barbarism, barbarism taints also the manner in which it was transmitted from one owner to another." (Walter Benjamin, Theses on the Philosophy of History, VII)

  • Online text: http://www.tasc.ac.uk/depart/media/staff/ls/WBenjamin/CONCEPT2.html

  • Theodor Adorno: "After Auschwitz writing poetry is barbaric".

  • In 1949 the German philosopher and social critic Theodor Adorno made his famous comment that "to write poetry after Auschwitz is barbaric." Exactly what he meant has been the subject of much debate. Can't we — shouldn't we — make art out of atrocity? Or does aesthetics have no business trafficking with abomination? How does one speak, as artist or critic, about events often described with the horror-drenched cliché "unspeakable"? (Jennifer Howard, The Chronicle of Higher Education, Online)

  • Lyotard on Kant's notion of the sublime:

  • "Sublime feeling is analyzed as double defiance. Imagination at the limits of what it can present does violence to itself in order to present that it can no longer present. Reason, for its part, seeks, unreasonably, to violate the interdict it imposes on itself and which is strictly critical, the interdict that prohibits it from finding objects corresponding to its concepts in sensible intuition. In these two aspects, thinking defies its own finitude, as if fascinated by its own excessiveness."

  • A difficult idea, for which help can be found in the following: Anthony David, "Lyotard on the Kantian Sublime": http://www.bu.edu/wcp/Papers/Cont/ContDavi.htm

  • A link between different European thinkers on the sublime:

  • "In his work A Philosophical Enquiry into the Origin of our Ideas of the Sublime and the Beautiful, Edmund Burke foregrounds his notion of the sublime as inherently physical and psychosomatic. Sublime is "whatever is fitted in any sort to excite the ideas of pain, and danger, that is to say, whatever . . . operates in a manner analogous to terror" (36). Burkean sublimity is not a transcendental ideal--an element standing outside the present moment, on a higher level, or a concept of what is to come in the future--but, rather, emphasizes the immanent, the "ordinary" and calls attention to the experience of terror and other physiological perversions and deviations.
         Immanuel Kant, drawing indirectly on Burke, provides, in the Critique of Judgement, a distinction between the dynamical and the mathematical sublime. He calls "dynamical" the sublime in nature, that is, everything that excites us by its "size" and "might" (40) without allowing itself to be understood by the human mind; he calls "mathematical" the sublime that describes "greatness" in an object "among many other objects of a like kind, yet without the extent of this" greatness "being [precisely] determined" (95). Lyotard borrows the Burkean idea of immanent sublimity in order to express his notion of the unpresentable as the simultaneous presentation of mathematical form and dynamical formlessness. A natural disaster is too sublime for the mind to conceive. At the same time, the mathematical sublime deprives an object of its pure formlessness by intermittently assigning it a specific shape through the excessive proliferation, by way of repetition, of imaginary simulations of the same form. In effect we get an oscillation between form and formlessness."

  • Source: http://www.costis.org/x/lyotard/aretoulakis.htm

  • Another source on Lyotard and the sublime: http://www.iep.utm.edu/l/Lyotard.htm

  • "Lyotard's postmodernism draws attention to the limits of reason through its focus on the sublime. The differend is experienced as a feeling of not being able to find the words to express something; it signals the limits of one language game or phrase regime and the attempt to move on to another one. Lyotard analyses this experience in terms of Kant's idea of the sublime, which is itself an experience of the limits of reason. In Kant's philosophy, the sublime is the mixed feeling of pleasure and pain that we feel in the face of something of great magnitude and grandeur. We can have an idea of such things, but we cannot match up that idea with a direct sensory intuition since sublime objects surpass our sensory abilities. An example of a sublime object for Kant would be a mountain; we can have an idea of a mountain, but not a sensory intuition of it as a whole. We feel pain at the frustration of our faculties to fully grasp the sublime object, but a pleasure as well in the attempt to do so. Lyotard extends the notion of the sublime from that which is absolutely great to all things which confound our abilities to synthesize them into knowledge. Thus the sublime is situated at the differend between language games and phrase regimes; we feel a mixture of pleasure and pain in the frustration of not knowing how to follow on from a phrase but feeling that there is something important that must be put into words. In Lyotard's postmodern philosophy the sublime is the feeling that indicates the limits of reason and representation."

5.  The notion of "naming" as a form of "interpellation" : the projection of an identity on someone through one's naming of that person in this or that way.

     Interpellation: http://faculty.uwb.edu/mgoldberg/courses/definitions/Interpellation.html

      Prosopopoeia or personification: http://www.litencyc.com/php/stopics.php?rec=true&UID=906



7    Review Questions 


1.     To what extent can we say that Turner has already "deconstructed", or "pre-empted" Ruskin, or Dabydeen's objections to Ruskin?

2.     Why is the notion of "the sublime" inadequate or problematic in relation to Turner's painting?

3.     Greek rhetoric describes "naming" as prosopopoeia or personification. How does "giving names" become crucial to Dabydeen's poem? What does it accomplish?

4.      What is Dabydeen's relation to, or personal involvement in, the Slave Trade or its consequences as refracted by the painting?

5.      What is the ethical or moral drive underlying Dabydeen's treatment of Ruskin-Turner?





Last Updated 23 February 2012