Essay: “The Triangular Hour” in Arty 37, ‘Isolation Chamber Vacation’.
One of de Chirico’s paintings of a figure in a sunlit piazza has the startling title “The Melancholy of a Beautiful Day”. Melancholy and fine weather? Surely not. We associate depression with winter darkness and Seasonal Affective Disorder. But here is another kind of SAD, conspicuous also in the work of Dali, Magritte and Hopper and characterised by an isolated figure in glaring light and strong shadows. Dali’s “The Triangular Hour” is of a child with shadow on a desert plain, in his “Remorse” a woman is half-stuck in sand with a long shadow, Hopper’s “Morning Sun” depicts a woman sitting blankly on a bed with the large reflections of sunlight on the wall. All of these convey a sense of ennui and torpor which has influenced my own drawings of single figures made in Morocco and the Midi.
Melancholy in these works seems in part to be generated by the image of the figure in time. The paintings of Dali and de Chirico are noted for clocks and watches while the sun is marking time with shadows. But while melancholy may be part of a sense of time passing, it is also an effect of time seeming to stand still. Watches are dysfunctional, melting or made of stone, the figures are depicted as static and the hard edges of shadows against sunlight contribute to a frozen effect in compositions that emphasise the absolute stillness of painting. ‘As idle as a painted ship/Upon a painted ocean’ is how Coleridge’s Ancient Mariner describes being stuck in the doldrums, and these surrealist paintings collaborate especially strikingly with the stillness of their art.
Coleridge’s poem reminds us that this becalmed state is not of course just in visual art. It is succinctly expressed, for example, in the writings of Evagrius the Solitary, a Christian ascetic who confesses that ‘The demon of acedia, also called the noonday demon, [see Psalm 91:6] is the most oppressive of all the demons. He attacks the monk towards the fourth hour [10 am] and besieges the soul until the eighth hour [2 pm]. He begins by giving the impression that the sun is hardly moving, or not moving at all, and that the day has at least forty hours.’ This oppressive atmosphere is reminiscent of Camus’s “The Outsider”, set in Algerian summer, and in another existentialist classic, Sartre’s “Nausea”. Indeed the 1970 edition of “Nausea” has Dali’s “Triangular Hour” as its cover illustration.
In “Nausea” the solitary Roquentin (failing to get on with his project of writing a biography) suffers from Evagrius’s noonday demon, the sense of boredom and depression in sunshine. Both he and Meursault in “The Outsider” have a listlessness at odds with how we think the vigorous existentialist should be. But I would suggest that Roquentin’s sunlit melancholia has something specifically to do with imperatives rooted in existentialism (though not of course only experienced by existentialists) of liberty, choice and action. In existentialism the individual is condemned to be free, has the liberty, indeed the responsibility and necessity continuously to create himself through action and will. ‘Man is nothing else but that which he makes of himself’ writes Sartre in “Existentialism Is a Humanism”. But this command to make that ‘leap towards existence’ is the source of a particular burden, a particular anxiety and faced with the beckoning of so many possibilities, the existentialist may fail to act, he may do nothing. He is immobilised by choice. Indeed whatever he chooses he is faced with limitation and the ghosts of choices not made.
In “Nausea”, Roquentin continually records the passing of time. He notes the hour at which he is in the cafe or street. He knows that he should be using the minutes more productively but he is not doing so, quite the reverse, and sunlight only increases his torpor:
‘I know in advance that this is a wasted day. I shan’t do anything good, except, perhaps, after nightfall. It’s on account of the sun….it flows into my room, all fair and pale, and it spreads four dull, false patches of light on my table…..When the sun begins shining like that the best thing to do would be to go to bed.’
This is unusual. The sun calls you to do something, to act, to get out more. And so does Existentialism. But Roquentin wants to sleep, maybe because of that very challenge. Existentialism says ‘Choose. Do. Fulfil.’ But do what, choose what? There are too many choices and to choose means to be limited and to regret possibilities not pursued. I think that this curious photophobic malaise, this sunlit sadness here or in the paintings of the contemporaneous surrealists, is to do with the sun showing us, like gnomons, as pinned and trapped in space as in time. While making us aware of time passing with the shortening or lengthening of shadows and while exhorting us to use time productively, it inscribes us through the sharp shapes of shadows in a particular place at a particular time. It shows us our lack of freedom, our imprisonment in this place. We are made conspicuous here and now, in this flat at ten in the morning, on this street at four in the afternoon. We are aware that we have chosen, or not chosen, to be here now; we are pinned to this spot and aware of limitations and finitude wherever we are and whatever we do. Sunlight and shadows, marking the passing of time and the body in space, call to mind limit, where you are not and what you have not chosen. Welcome to Reverse SAD, the Psalmist’s ‘destruction that wasteth at noonday’.