Rev., August 30, 2012.
The blue moon became a symbol of the end of summer this year. It also symbolized my situation with regard to summer: I am only ever able to get out once in a blue moon. I also connect it to my personal visual culture, and so that is why at one point I named a private press of mine the Blue Moon Press, as I am only ever motivated to get a work of mine published also once in a blue moon. Here is how the strands of experience formulated that symbolism for me in the last days of the summer.
First, I learned that it was time again for another blue moon. There had not been one in a while, and would not be another until July 31, 2015. This kind of date puts a landmark on the calendar and gives you a target to still be alive on. So that was good.
Second, there have been a few other astronomical observances this summer, and this year, including the large moons of recent times. A third association was made for me when I looked it up online and learned that Slooch space camera was going to broadcast the event, and they associated with the recent death of Neil Armstrong. Though I believe that they were making a simple moon-bound linkage, without irony, and while over the years it could be said that in his noted shyness and lack of publicity-seeking Armstrong has often been suspected of what today looks to Americans like lunacy, and he did look rather moonish in his official suited up NASA portraits sitting in front of a large format photo of the moon, almost to the point of wanting to see his face not the man in the moon, the fact that America has not returned to the moon in two generations makes its Blue Moon phase an apt symbol of the program, and our changed relationship to it.
Fourth, I did tip a cap farewell to Armstrong on his death because he was a great American who did a great thing at a time when great things were being done, and they are not being done anymore. But my involvement in the space race was purely fed in by the culture of the time, it was not an intrinsic interest. So in some sense he was the manufactured hero of a manufactured space race, all for the purposes of propaganda and strictly a cultural phenomenon. Still, at my age, the passing of any great figure from the period of my childhood I mark as another slough of the world in whole toward the Old Jerusalem of death, and so it brought out a tear. But I was more interested in the blue moon as it speaks of summer and its symbols. Therefore, it was of interest, when it was asked if the moon actually turned blue (no, it did not), it if ever had turned blue, leading to the creation of the phrase.
Fifth, then, it seems that in 1883 after the explosion of the Krakatoa volcano the ash in the air cast a pall over the earth up to Norway and it did in fact turn the moon blue. This discoloration followed upon an earlier discoloration in the evening, the sky at sunset turning a bright red.
Sixth, it has been theorized by that the red sky in Edvard Munch’s Scream if not literally at the moment he had his eureka for the creation of the painting then figuratively afterwards influenced the amazingly blood red sky of The Scream. Munch’s description of the moment of inception is that as he was walking on a road from the hill of Ekeberg near Oslo, from the asylum where his sister was kept, he was tired and ill, and “stopped and looked out over the fjord—the sun was setting, and the clouds turning blood red. I sensed a scream passing through nature; it seemed to me that I heard the scream. I painted this picture, painted the clouds as actual blood. The color shrieked. This became The Scream.” A few things. First, the blood red sky. Incidents of airborne algae had accounted for what was called Kreuzregen, a rain of blood read by recipients as also falling as crosses and arma Christi, in Europe, since the 1500s. In the Storm in the Valley sequence in Friday the 13th One, Kevin Bacon and his girl looking out over the lake, she confesses to a chill, and says that she had dreamt of a blood rain. The blood red sky, the sky of blood, then, is a known folk motif. What distinguished the moment is that he heard a scream passing through nature. Traditionally, in horror, this motif is usually triggered by gusting wind. It can be heard in the background of the wall-of-sound amplifications of the thunderous repetitive riff in the Beatles Heavy and in the shout in the Alan Bates movie The Shout. A scream passing through nature, coming up, at it were, out of nature, would also theoretically qualify as a nomos, a cri de Coeur. Munch did not mention wind. How does one get from blood red to a scream, then. (Was the Kevin Bacon stabbed from below through the neck shot though inspired by the Scream?)
Seventh, one explanation of the mechanism by which this happened would be that Munch experienced a depersonalization disorder episode. This disorder entails a kind of derealization, in which, momentarily, one feels detached from one’s body (which could have the effect of making one aware of one’s body’s pulses as external to you, as part of nature; therefore, he would have felt a nervous tizzy as something happening in nature), or have a sense of being an automaton, to phrase it differently, going through life, but without feeling (in which case the gap between self and world is so great the friction might generate the scream). More interesting are other elements of depersonalization order such as a feeling that one is in a dream, or having an out of body experience. Again, in the latter, the inner workings of his body would have been experienced as happening in nature. And in the former the lack of lines between planes of reality in dreams would have spread them through nature, and also, if in the dream state, he experienced something that started him awake, accounting for a disruption that could be theoretically vocalized by a scream, a nightmare shiver that wakes one up. But out of body experience has also been called an example of magical thinking, caused by hyperactivity of the parietal lobe, leading one to externalize causality to an agent and as a result see oneself as another person outside of oneself and one’s body. This kind of experience is akin to thinking that a double stands next to you, or the same excitation of the parietal lobe due to grief is attributed to the gullibility of seancers who want to hear from their loved ones again, and do. So the fact that Munch was, it is said, just leaving from seeing his institutionalized sister means that he may have contagiously picked up her manic-depressive energy, it disoriented his sense of reality, and see saw the scream in the scene.
Last June, one of the few copies of the Scream sold for millions of dollars. Commentators poo-poohed the purchase on the grounds that the image is such a cliché that it is not worth it. It is often claimed that it is impossible to see the Scream because it has been reproduced and parodied to death in popular culture. This is not true. The Scream is worth it because it is completely perfect example of pictorial composition saturated top to bottom in the echoes of a single emotional state. In the reflective state of art, this is so difficult to master, to bring off without hesitation or flaw–just for that, it is an extremely rare work of art. The head of the figure, his hands, his positioning on the bridge, the echo of the linearity of his figure in the clouds, and in the fjord, they all are so many echoes of his face, a perfect visual expression of the experience of Munch in the moment. That is, the picture has psychological power bottled up as in a battery in the majesty of a breathtakingly perfect capture of a single moment of negative energy. This power, because it was so intense, adheres to the image: as to an icon, as to a miracle picture.—it still has presence in itself, in the sense of a Benjaminian aura. Therefore, it remains real, and real in spite of the fact that is has been reproduced so often. These psychological state explanations also offer a eureka a mechanism to explain the power of the image. Munch was experiencing one of those chain-reaction nervous vibrations that if one does not stop them, they can get dangerous. If he had not found a way to cathect his bad feelings before he crossed that bridge he might have ended up standing in the shadow of the faint figure in the background and jumping off the bridge. Perhaps that figure is a premonition of himself committing suicide (did he say to himself, if nothing happens, if I get to the middle of the bridge without something happening to stop me, I am jumping off? Maybe): it represents a chill or shiver of backed off terror, as one might have at the edge of a cliff, thinking how close one is to oblivion. But the Scream itself is the catharsis, is the apotropaic mask that wards off that worst scenario outcome. It breaks the circuit, and lets him step back, and reflect, and record, and make art, and survive. And for the artist, that moment is always a eureka, an idea to make a work of art, an idea that makes on want to run back to the studio and not jump off that bridge. Art made by a person who dies while making it one thing, this may be art that talked him down out of suicide.
Circuit breaking was the secret key to the instrumentation of apotropaic images in ancient times. Most ancients did not conceptualize the supernatural as existing in a singular zone elevated away from the mundane. They pictured the supernatural as flowing through nature like a force field. It therefore still required magic as well as rite to manage it. According to Frazier, magic simply involved the false logic or an early conceptualization of how nature worked. Religion involved the creation of a supernatural zone where gods dwelled and intervened miraculously in nature. In magic, good and evil was expressed by pathways of calm or nervous energy either making you feel comfortable in your skin or like you wanted to jump out of your skin. There was nothing worse than getting stuck in chain-reaction. The most important thing to do, in old magic, was to stop it, to put out the fire, to defuse the situation. This they did by breaking the chain-reaction through shock therapy. An apotropaic figure threw a monkey wrench into the works, and stopped them. The startle effect broke the momentum of the frisson; the scream depleted the pent up dangerous negative menace of the moment. You can see this build up and this dissipation pattern in hundreds of horror movies and stories.
So, the face of the scream is an apotropaic image: it stops the scream, as it offers it a catharsis. As a result, eight, it must then be seen that in addition to the blood red sky, the picture is notable for its steely blue fjord. This is very late dusk, sunset is already being overtaken by the darkness. Night is on the water. That night is blue, on the night of a blue moon. It is likely that though attention has been given to Krakatoa’s blood red sky, and this is what Munch mentioned, its blue moon was also instrumental in the eureka of the picture (Some art historians have rejected the Krakatoan explanation as a too literal or positivist explanation for an artist who was an expressionist. But even expressionists still find the spark to ideas in the circumstances and opportunities of lived experience. Exploiting, even if he was unaware of Krakatoa, the unique quality of sky that night of inspiration, is in keeping with all I know of models of inspiration). The blue moon is depicted only reflectively here, by the certain distinct blueness of the night as it creeps in upon the fjord.
But if you situate The Scream in the context of the series of paintings it was part of, The Frieze of Life, then the blue moon emerges as a presiding spirit, even goddess of the series. In The Voice, which I like as much as The Scream, a woman stands shrouded in moonlight in a white dress in the woods. The moon casts its glow on the water. The caption reads, “How pale you are in the moonlight and how dark your eyes, they are so large that they blot out half the sky.” The Moon is above the top of canvas, pushed out, she is the moon.
In Moonlight, the moon is rendered as a smudge in the window, “the image of her standing there in the light summer’s night with the pale moon above hung there before him, “ causing him insomnia.
In The Lonely Ones, the moon is small, off to the side, a couple stares out at the water, “his gaze is lost in the whiteness of her figure.
In Two Women on the Shore, “the smile…became the ugly fateful smile of the Medusa’s head, a frightful grimace of unhappiness.”
In the Mermaid, ‘there is a mermaid in the pillar of the moon gazing at the large round orb above the horizon, she rocks in the pillar of the moon.”
In The Tree Stump, “you could see a little of the moon, large and yellow,” and again the occult image of the pillar of the moon on the water.
In Attraction, the light is greenish and bluish, however, his face is pale.
In Woman/Sphinx, “the mystique of the whole development concentrated into one,” a nude woman stretches by a shore. Jealousy, a green face, “eyes are as concentrated as in a crystal of many reflections.” Ashes, “I felt that our love lay on the ground like a heap of ashes.” Kiss, “I felt her body clamped tight against me.”
Vampire, “he felt two lips on his neck, it sent a shudder through him, a shiver of desire.”
Madonna, “moonlight glides over it so fully of earthly beauty.”
Angst, “The people who glided past him like pale ghosts.”
And then….the Scream.
Two things. First, the pillar of the moon is the key visual device of the series. It represents a romantic image, moonlight on water, hardened by a kind of calentures of vision into a hard pillar. Medusa was mentioned, and then in The Kiss and others the closeness of the space is created by a joining together of planes and space and dark moonlitness in the same way. This happens as a result of a particular kind of vision or eyesight: the unconnected connect, the three dimensional becomes two dimensional, the soft hard, the hard soft. A sense of claustrophobia is created by this effect. It may be that this visual effect (well known to me) is derived from some sort of visual acuity that Munch had that foreshadowed his later optical problems: it may be the visual expression of a migraine, and create a hypnagogic state at the very least a dreamy reverie. It likely linked to his personal visual system, the origin of his so-called expressionism (just as Poe’s visual system was grounded in his macropsia, so Munch’s was grounded in some particular type of visuality). But woman in this system is placed in a state of tenuous visibility, passing in and out from one plane to another, attracting one, then spurning one, creating a frisson of approach and rebuff that builds up into a frustration. Especially in Attraction and The Kiss one feels the friction of the relationship Munch is describing, a kind of painful resistance that can cut one to the quick and rent open space in a way that would occasion a Scream (It is possible, given the origin of the milieu in darkness on haunted inland lakes, under the moonlight, that slashing as a motif in movies derived from the same frisson of frustration in that sort of situation. That is, the true origin of the slasher film lies not in punishment of teenage sex, as has become the common explanation, but in rejection of the male by the unapproachable female, worse, the female who lets you in, then rebuffs you). I know of this dynamic because I experienced it. This is a wonderful, erotic place to be in, but also can be extremely painful.
In most of the paintings the moon is shrouded by mist, and yellow. In Dance of Life it is white, in Anxiety that blue spot in the upper left hand corner might be a blue moon, or not. In any case, it is clear that the series is presided over by the moon and that this series is all about the veiled moon goddess dimension of woman, both good and evil sides. Goddess exegesis no doubt could be used to tease out more dark meaning. But maybe there is another ancient source for this atavistic goddess. The fact that throughout faces are effaced by moonlight and by sadness and preoccupation, again signifies the frustrating what’s the matter with you tonight, what’s the matter now, tension of these encounters. Rosenblum conjectured that Munch got the idea for the odd skulllike figure in the Scream (also interpretable as a demon of insomnia) from a Peruvian mummy.
This has been disputed, but it makes a certain sense, even if not literally true (how can we tell what books he looked at, after all?). At the time, in an art historical urban legend since debunked, it was thought that mummies screamed because they were persona non gratas who were buried alive and so struggled some time after their burial to be free. Thus the “it’s true” terror of this particularly rich storied motif (quote here from The Pit and the Pendulum). That fears of being buried alive were still in the air at the time contributed to the support of the plausibility of this myth, a key factor contributing to its power (again carrying over into modern gothic horror). (We now know that it was just bad mummification that lead to mouths opening postmortem). .
Transposing all persons in the Frieze of Life into walking mummies, as they do indeed look, in Angst, would provide just enough effacement of emotion to complain of their lack of feeling as masks, smiling, phlegmatic, calm faces, and also suggest to Munch the extreme result of a swoon of depression that might follow upon the upset at his predicament in Ashes or Vampire. The feeling that everyone is dead could also be read as another kind of depersonalizing experience. One does wonder, with Angst, if Munch gave rise to the visualization of the zombie. All in all, then, for the moment, it would appear that the blue moon as well as the red sky contributed to The Scream, the Frieze of Life and the hypnagogic state of visual upset that Munch was in as a result of the events described or felt symbolically in the series. Could it even be likely that when Munch looked up at the pillar of the moon he saw on top of that pedestal a face, a woman in the moon, but with the face of the figure in the scream?
A final thought. Wikipedia always, of course, links any fact in life to popular culture, for nothing is real, in the American universe, unless it has life in popular culture. For Blue Moon, then, they mentioned the song, but not American Werewolf in London, where it is the first of several moon songs through the course of the movie, all indicating phases of possession. More intriguingly, the Blue Moon was utilized in The Smurfs, an awful movie that I nonetheless screened in the house before the blue moon came out over the tops of the trees in back (my DeGraw Street apartment), as the occasion of a portal opening up in their submushroom world (making them counterparts to mushroom figures in Mayan culture), cutting a hole in a waterfall, off of a peak got to by Danger signs over a path, a peak not unlike the iconic peak in the Dark Shadows movies, and transporting them to New York, and especially, of course, tourist New York, the Central Park universe, which is in fact part of toddler town New York.
Thus, the blue moon as portal: this suggests that Munch was not simply being an expressionist in exaggerating angst but had been transported to a hypnogogic state and was simply reporting what he was experiencing and visualizing in that world. So, several agencies at work here.