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Bitten by reality

I’ve been pondering for quite some time one of Caravaggio’s paintings, the Boy bitten by a lizard. It came to me in a flash of intuition while I was considering how difficult, especially in the past, it has been for me to talk and relate to anything that could be concretely associated with a time or a place. Since I was fifteen, I have been writing stuff (stories, poems, essays, dialogues). But in most cases, I always tried my best to avoid making anything too particular, too connected with identifiable coordinates, details, names. Whatever I wrote was ‘lyrical’ in a sense (namely, it has always been an expression of something that I felt quite deeply within me). Yet, I’ve always tried to ‘save’ these expressions from any concrete detail that could have ‘compromised’ it and make it identifiable, pinning it down to a specific ‘here and now’. This resistance against being ‘concrete’ is a very specific emotion, a sort of fear, even disgust, and automatic retraction and contraction. A few days ago, it came to me that this very emotion is perfectly captured in the expression of Caravaggio’s boy in the painting. I’ve never really investigated what is behind this emotion, but I thought that I could perhaps use the painting itself as a scheme to get clearer about some of its dimensions. Maybe this is art therapy, maybe it’s something else. Let’s see where it leads.

The most standard interpretation of the painting is that it offers an allegory of the ‘pains of love’. The young boy could represent a young courtesan who’s preparing himself for some romantic encounter, while the lizard symbolizes the inevitable sorrow and pain that will follow from engaging in this kind of life. Hence, the most obvious interpretation suggested by the painting is that my aversion to make myself identifiably in a concrete space and time was connected with my fear of being ‘recognized’ and hence ‘blamed’ for the sort of love I was looking for. Fair enough.


But I do see something more in the painting; perhaps there is something more also in my own emotional reaction. The boy does not look at the lizard that bites him. In fact, the boy does not seem to look towards anything in particular. He has the sort of de-focused gaze that one takes when thinking within himself. The bite of the lizard is but an occasion for a certain realization, which shapes his whole bodily expression. There is a mixture of pain (the contracted forehead and the jerky posture), surprise (the open mouth) and disillusionment (the expression of the eyes).


I also notice that the boy is surprised by the lizard in a moment when he was intent in dressing up an making himself beautiful, by using roses as decoration for his hair. The boy has already a rose on his right hear and another one is cut and ready in a vase, suggesting that it will be used as well. His right hand is in fact reaching towards the table when his finger gets bitten up. A rose is just a flower, a structure through which a plant brings about its reproductive function. But when you cut a rose, interpret it because of its form and color as signifying something else, and then use that rose-symbol to construct your own image, then the rose is no longer a rose, but it becomes integrated into something larger and deeper, that we humans call ‘Beauty’ (and this word summarizes in itself everything else of this kind, including ‘Truth’ and ‘Goodness’, as philosophers know). In other words, the boy is intent in constructing (his own) Beauty, which needs to be understood as a symbolic construction, or as a way of using raw materials to create something that transcends them and goes beyond their literal, material, functional appearance (so that a rose is no longer just a rose).


However, the lizard comes up precisely from the same table where we see the other rose in the vase, which the boy would have used to decorate his left hear. The lizard was hidden among some cherries (some ripe some not), which might also have been used for decoration, or perhaps as a refreshing bite before going out (and note that cherries can be bittersweet). The lizard is a reptile, a kind of animal that does not know very sophisticated kinds of emotions (fear and lust are enough for its life). The lizard does not partake in the symbolic construction of Beauty, nor could it even understand any of that. The lizard just sees warm meat (a finger), find it appealing and tries to eat it up. Maybe the boy was going to pick up a cherry to eat it, but he got bitten instead by the lizard.


The bite disrupts the atmosphere of the scene, by showing its constructed nature. It is as if the lizard is reminding the boy that a rose is just a plant, a cherry just a fruit, and a finger just meat. Beauty is a construction; hence, it is ultimately an imposture, a farce. The lizard, obviously, does not say this to the body (nor could it even conceive of something like this, since for the lizard Beauty simply does not exist). It is the boy who has this flash of insight, as if he could see the ultimate futility of his attempt at making Beauty up. And this causes him the surprise (as if he was waking up from a dream), the disillusionment (Beauty isn’t real beyond its own representation, or it can be real only by forgetting about its material conditions), and the jerking of his whole body (for the pain that this realization, more than the bite, entails).

In short, Caravaggio seems to capture the precise moment in which one realizes that Beauty is not a transcendent platonic idea (as one would have liked to believe) but it shares the same status and nature of the very materials from which it is constructed, which by themselves know nothing of Beauty. In this sense, Beauty is like one of those ‘perspective games’ that were popular in the Baroque era, through which artists and architects tried to create the sense of immense spaces on a flat surface (a very nice example is Borromini’s ‘Prospettiva’ created at Palazzo Spada, in Rome, half a century after Caravaggio’s Boy). We are symbolic creatures, and we tend to believe in our symbolic constructions, there is a pleasure in doing so. But as we walk through a painted space we hit a wall, and as we use roses to embody Beauty we got bitten by lizards.


Back to my modest experience, I think I somehow suspected that all my narrative, poetic,  and philosophical constructions were in fact symbolic constructions. I spent so much time entertaining relatively metaphysical ideas, speculating on things that for most people do not even make sense. I genuinely liked them and wanted them to be true. To some extent they were true, albeit only in the phenomenological sense in which a dream can be true for the one who’s dreaming it. But some part of me knew (because you can’t simply ignore it) that this was in fact just a construction, a façade, a mask, a dream. The best way of avoiding waking up was to stay as far as possible from all concrete materials (the table from which Caravaggio’s boy is picking up his roses and cherries). Of course, this doesn’t work on the long run, because everything we use for a symbolic construction is ultimately going to reveal the construction as being just a construction. And the paradox is that we need materials for the construction, so we can’t avoid using something to build up our symbols. Hence, it’s in the very nature of this construction to be unmasked and collapse. This is the fundamental Buddhist insight: all that has the nature of originating, has the nature of ceasing. And this is also Nietzsche’s insight about the unavoidable intertwining between Apollo and Dionysus.  


What to do, then? I guess we have at least three options. The first is becoming lizards. We simply give up symbolic constructions and live like reptiles. Many people seem to enjoy this, and probably lizards do as well. Be my guest, if you like. But this doesn’t fit my nature. The second option is facing over and over again the emotion that the boy shows in Caravaggio’s painting. That same emotion I was myself struggling with for so many years. We construct a dream, then wake up, then try to go back to it, until we wake up again, on and on. Isn’t this what the Indians call samsara? I’d like to think we have a third option. Perhaps we do, and that’s Caravaggio’s own solution (later articulated by Nietzsche, among others). We deliberately learn how to enjoy the tragedy as a tragedy. There is a Beauty in pure Beauty and bliss. However, there is an even deeper Beauty in the fading away of Beauty, in the collapsing of something that for a brief moment stood up as transcending anything else towards a somewhat superior realm. Waking up can be the moment of disillusionment occasioned by being bitten by reality, but it can also become the moment of supreme enjoyment in which we can see together the transcendent world hinted at by the symbolic construction of Beauty and the real world (the lizard’s world), as they come together, in one indissoluble and contradictory dissonant chord. If we can find beauty (without capital) in this dissonance, then we’re saved, forever. Maybe this is the real awakening.

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