A Thousand Erotic Games

Raoul Vaneigem writes about Hieronymus Bosch

Hieronymus Bosch had a unique facility for depicting on wood and canvas the combination of corruption and innocence that characterises us. Bosch’s abysses, like our own, are inhabited by hybrid monsters, creatures half-angel, half-beast, and make us wonder which half will pounce on the other and enslave it. His visions anticipate Rabelais’s phantasmagoria. But unlike Francesco Colonna’s The Dream of Poliphilus, written in Bosch’s time but published only later, unlike even the Park of Monsters in Bomarzo, Bosch’s work does not invite transient moments of contemplation. As the fruit of a heightened consciousness that scrutinised the secret universe of subjectivity, it puts us in the dock and demands that we cross-examine ourselves. Nightmare and reverie in Bosch go beyond a ‘picture of the state of things’ meant to elicit admiration or repulsion, beyond moral judgment, and beyond the kind of intellectual speculation that is no more than substance disincarnate, thought detached from life. What confronts us is a mirror of what dwells within, haunting us, possessing us, casting a spell and obscurely governing our actions. We find ourselves, standing in front of Bosch’s paintings, suddenly obliged to engage with the traces of humanity and inhumanity that intermingle and do battle within us. The question arises: what possible human faculty might be called on to bring calm and harmony to inner chaos? Not a faculty of judgment – of approval or condemnation – since in Bosch there is no aspect of the self that is unaccompanied by its opposite; the torments of hell go hand in hand with the delights of the Golden Age.

‘The Haywain Triptych’ (c.1516)
‘The Haywain Triptych’ (c.1516)

The basic instinctual paraphernalia of the inner self does seem, whatever the particular rationality, normality or spiritual cult beneath which it is concealed, to traverse the history of humanity relatively unchanged. (Is it not tempting to speak of an ‘ahistorical’ psyche when one realises how little difference there is between the contemporaries of Gilgamesh and the militarised brutes, the fanatics, the exploiters and the exploited of the 21st century?) But with Bosch, no doubt, the particular manifestation of that self, its mobilisation and its pictorial representation, do belong to the historical period and social circumstances of his everyday life.

He was obviously a man of erudition, a scholar with a wide-ranging curiosity. Attention has often been drawn to the frequent presence in his work of the sort of colporteur who criss-crossed national boundaries at that time, peddling almanacs, prayer books, banned lampoons and booklets whose edifying covers disguised ideas hostile to established orthodoxies and authorities. Bosch was also highly respected, a notable, a guildsman and a member of the Illustrious Brotherhood of Our Blessed Lady in ’s-Hertogenbosch. If that is surprising it is because we are too prone to underestimate the degree to which the dominance of the Inquisition, with its accompanying theology of repression, the tyranny of governments both civil and ecclesiastical, and more pervasively the pressure of custom and prejudice, led some men and women into a clandestine second existence where they took on roles proscribed by the conformism around them. There they indulged the pleasures of the flesh, preached hedonism, and engaged in extortion, crime and subversion – all the while planning to obtain forgiveness for their sins by way of last-minute penitence. It is not implausible to suppose that Bosch had such a double life; to imagine in him a willingness to break free of the roles that society expects its members to play, and a wish to reveal, with a kind of malicious innocence, what seethes underneath a cassock or a uniform, or behind the masks of virtue, clear conscience or good manners.

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