The Circle of Individual Life Span and the Artist Looking Ahead through 148 years


Edouard Manet, “Old Musician”, 1862

The majority of people are swallowed by everyday life like the Biblical Jonah by the “big fish” – they go through the days, learn how to survive, they adapt, calculate, move from custom to custom, from gusto to gusto, from tears to tears, they become outworn. They are encircled by life as by a big bubble. And they are moving through their ages like metal or wooden forms in a machine tool.

Manet gives us the chance to observe human beings who are inside the living like small fishes inside the aquarium, who know nothing about the larger world, where their aquarium is located – what is inside, in immediate proximity to them is all they care about. We see six human figures – the inhabitants of the aquarium of life. Near the left margin of the painting we see a premature mother. She is almost a girl. We don’t even see her eyes. Of course, she has eyes, but, according to Manet, they don’t need to be seen by us because they don’t have gaze. Her eyes are cognitively blind. She became pregnant without seeing and feeling too much sense around. She perceives the world as she holds the baby – just physically, through bodily sensations. The tiny eyes of her tiny baby are just marked locations where eyes should be – baby is not yet looking, not to mention seeing. The girl-mother is located near a tree – she is a part of nature’s re-generation, growth and self-renewal. She is our past and our future through death – gaps between generations.

The representation of the two boys is even farther from the descriptive realism. They are with each other like the youthful mother is with her baby: they are like one body as a catamaran if it could be alive. Their souls are in a symbiotic embrace. Each of them is two-bodied in the same sense as an army is multi-bodied. Boys share identities, emotions, impressions, experiences, they share their very vitality. But look at their faces and at their eyes. While they are, obviously, not blind, Manet manages to make their gazes blind – the boys don’t see the world, they are not interested in the world. They are interested in their existence, not in the world. While the girl-mother’s eyes are out of our view (out of meaning), boys have rich and active experience in the world – their friendship, their togetherness, their similarity and dissimilarity: we see their eyes. But their gazes are blank – it is their gazes (not their eyes) are cognitively blind. The left boy looks ahead but as if sees nothing. The right boy expresses only what he has, what he is proud of – having a friend. He also as if sees nothing. We cannot even understand where he is looking – nowhere.

The curved line of living inside of the life span is continuing from left to right of the canvass through a point of mutation – the presence of the old musician, to the rather young but already rigid and as if ossified man sitting behind the musician on a stone, like a statue covered up by clothing. The girl has relations with her baby, the boys with one another. Being involved in a symbiotic relationship (that with shared identity and blurred psychological borders), according to Manet, must be an important characteristic of living inside human life. But where is the symbiotic partner of the man in the top hat? In the aquarium life the main task of adulthood is to get social status with its main attribute – material prosperity, to advance over others. This man has a symbiosis with his top hat as a symbol of his social status! Amazingly, he is also gazeless, and his eyes are without any expression. He never looked through and out of life; he never expressed a disinterested curiosity. He perceives life, like the girl-mother perceives her infant, like boys perceive each other – mainly, materially, physically, and bodily. His gaze into life is cognitively dead.

And, finally, the old man with a stick. His symbiotic relationship is with this stick. His eyes are dark. We have a feeling that the old man not only looks at but sees something, but this something is darkness – he sees only his death. His gaze is not dead – but it is filled by death. His gaze is cognitively operative, but the object of his cognition is only non-being.

And here is the point of mutation, of an existential whirlpool, of a volcanic eruption of the vitality of human intelligence – piercing the bubble of living, breaking the walls of the aquarium: we today, in 2010 meet the gaze of the old musician addressing us from almost hundred fifty years ago! He is the only character in the painting who overcomes belonging to the blind circularity of the life span. His eyes are filled with flames of life. His gaze is sparkling intelligence itself. He also has a partner, but it is not a symbiotic one. Musical instrument for human intelligence is like creative intuition is for the human mind. It is an organ of transcendence of our factual existence. Musical instrument is an incarnation of human talent into matter: like voice is for the singer, words and rhythms are for the poet, inspiration – for our intuition, logic for our mind, metaphor for our unconscious. The spiritual capability of transcending the bubble of living makes this Manet’s gypsy artist the contemporary of future generations, a meta-historical essence of humanity uniting us with our ancestors and our descendents. Artist is a universal personification of human beings on Earth.

This openness to the world and to other people is the ability of our very intelligence to love life. When today we again see the growing blindness of “surplus-survival” (of grabbing the natural resources and running for profit by any price as the main goal in life), losing the sensitivity towards transcendent and disinterested curiosity – we appreciate with a new enthusiasm the celebration of spirituality as a human motivation to live meaningfully that Manet shares with us in his “Old Musician”.


Edouard Manet looking out of his life span, as the artist in his “Old Musician”