Ship of Fools
April 3, New Delhi
Neal and I saw the Hieronymus Bosch show on April 1 in Den Bosch, the Netherlands. I can't imagine a more appropriate day — April Fools' Day. More than a few of Bosch's paintings remind us of what fools we are, and the first painting in the exhibition is — for those of you who have not already guessed — the Ship of Fools. This constitutes one of Gurdjieff's notable coincidences, if anything does.
Bosch had an outsized impact on the art not only of his own generation, but future ones, and its reverberations echo down through the current day. Those in the know sense this almost instinctively. The show is, as it happens, completely sold out, and the museum has added extra hours to accommodate the crowds. One can only imagine the sensation this show would have caused had it been in a major museum in, for example, New York City, such as the Metropolitan. We are all attracted to mystery; yet we forget that we live in the midst of it, and that life itself, as it is lived today, is the great mystery. Bosch managed to bring that across his paintings in a way that no other painter ever has.
The show is in large, dark rooms, filled with crowds; the paintings are individually lit so that they gleam like small, colorful gems emerging from the darkness. One can't help, after visiting the show, but have the impression that the crowds viewing the paintings are much like the hapless souls that hover in the darknesses and peripheries of Bosch's infernal landscapes: attracted to light, but at the mercy of forces greater than themselves. Emerging into the daylight of the small town of s"Hertogenbosch, with the bright, expansive evening sky of a spring in the Netherlands above us, I was left with the same taste I had when I first saw the Garden of Earthly Delights at the Prado in Madrid at the age of nine: a taste of other worlds. One thing that truly struck me after the show is that it is nearly impossible to understand Bosch's paintings unless one has read Emmanuel Swedenborg's books; so much of his imagery is drawn from the same revelatory sources that informed Swedenborg's writing. It's striking that this hasn't been more directly recognized — perhaps that is because, unlike Dante's Divine Comedy and Swedenborg's Heaven and Hell, the world has come extraordinarily late — if it has come at all — to the realization that these paintings represent a body of works of revelation, not just invention.
The day when that is more fully understood will come.
Flying to India on business immediately after the show, I am, as ever, struck by the nature of our helplessness. We think we have agency; but that same agency, that belief in ego and our ability to do, is such a tiny and temporary thing when measured against time and the universe, our attitude towards life and ourselves is inexplicable. Once one weeds out the work by followers and imitators, and the work whose conceptual foundations had input from apprentices, the entire body of work by Bosch challenges our assumptions about everything.
What has value, he argues, is that core spark of divinity that lives within the essence of every human being as an objective form of consciousness, or conscience. (Readers may be aware that I am going to do a presentation on this subject at the All and Everything conference in Salem, Massachusetts on April 21.) We are all divinely inspired by that spark; but we are, to the last one of us, not responsible to it in the way we ought to be.
This weighs on me continually in the form of remorse, which is a burden that weighs more as one grows older.
Lee van Laer is a senior editor at Parabola Magazine.