Life and Wisdom – the Given Glory and the Achieved Modesty

Emil Nolde “Gelehrter mit Madchen”
Emil Nolde – “Gelehrter mit Madchen” (1919)

The girl is the sun itself (more exactly, she is the existential metaphor of the sun). So, she is divided between her girl-ness and her sun-ness, between the subject and the vehicle of this metaphor – the subject (sun) radiates through the girl (who is sunny). She is the sun as every human child is, and she is nature. Her hair is orange and her dress is green; she is the flowering itself –she has a pink scarf, dark pink lips and bright cheeks. But her face is white as a tabula rasa (a clean white paper) – she is ready for life experiences to be written on it.

The girl is a combination of three elements – sun (glory), nature (health) and whiteness (human intelligence ready to absorb the world).

The old scholar touches the girl’s clean white face with his parched fingers. To be sun-like is a given glory. To reach understanding is the achievement of modesty. Understanding is the denial of the given glory, is putting aside the sun-ness, the acceptance of the reality of human humility. Glory is absolute, understanding is relative. Understanding is always limited to the human existential condition. The scholar’s nose and cheeks are touched by the sun/glory’s flowering, but they are not like the girl’s scarf, lips or the flash on her cheeks. In her they are sunny; in him it is just burn by the sun, just a trace of it.

The scholar’s eyes are dark – they have seen so much tragedy, grief, reality. And only in the corner of his left eye there is a glance of light – is it a reflection of the girl’s vitality or her whiteness? – Or is it a transcendent light of the scholar’s thinking reflecting/matching the girl’s immanent light?

The scholar’s hair is not grey, but bright yellow – might it be the color of his wisdom ready to be harvested like ripe wheat or rye? – Or is it the light of the moon in comparison with the light of the sun – the girl’s hair?

The scholar’s robe is dark – he has accumulated a lot of earthy experiences. But everything he has seen, heard and experienced orients him on serving the young life – on teaching that it is not enough to be everything, to be the sun, to be a glory, that everything is not enough. Human being needs less than everything but this less, this minus from everything, this not everything is magnificence of human destiny and corresponds to human wisdom which is modest and congruent with humility. It is relative and limited, and it is a reflection of human condition, which is a reflection of everything in something.

The girl is everything and nothing (sun and tabula rasa). The scholar is as limited as is the human knowledge and human experience. He points out to her the proper way – the detour which is the human destiny: step from being a drop of the sun identifying with the whole sun to the meeting the sun through the mediation of perception. Without the (relative in value) human achievements there is no way to realize human destiny vis-à-vis sun/glory. Before the highest achievement of human life – reaching death that will reunite us with mother-sun, human being has to abandon its narcissistic sun-likeness and reach an understanding of the world of mortality.

The girl‘s protruding breasts are an indicator of mortals’ earthy self-realization before they will reach their mystical calling. But the scholar knows that it will be too sad if earthy destiny will be wasted. The girl thinks that her innocent smile (the smile of innocence, the seductive appeal of innocence) will conquer the scholar (and the world) but smiles are not conquerors in this world (only Hollywood superstars can with their smiles conquer the world because it is not real smiles and not real conquering). Look at how Nolde has painted the scholar’s right hand – the fingers. The advice to the girl to think more and not only to smile, has a connotation: the hidden advice is “to imagine and not just act out her erotic curiosity, not to project desires directly to the world, and instead project them to her mind.” But this re-orientation of desire from horizontality into contemplative/reflective verticality is a very difficult task for the creatures of human nature that we are. That’s why the scholar’ right hand fingers are so deformed – the gesture of pointing to sublimation (to the transformation of smiling to the world into thinking about the world) is so difficult because it is so unnatural. The scholar’s index finger pointing at the head looks almost artificial; it almost doesn’t belong to the human body. Nolde represents the thumb like a regular finger, and only erected – prosthesis-like index finger points to the wisdom as truth.

The road to everything lies through the relativity of human sublimation and human inspiration, through the limitation of being human. The task of the scholar is to teach the girl to become a little bit of a scholar. The task of the girl is to become a little less of a sun.

Nolde’s colors are windows into meaning (together with the composition of the painting, the plot, drama of mimics and gestures, rhythm of contrasts). Nolde’s colors are an invitation/seduction into the very intelligence of the world. Nolde’s painting is a combination of girl and scholar – of vitality and sense, of beauty and meaning.

If the scholar will be successful this girl will never become Eve as a procurer of seduction. She will find a more intelligent way of emotionally and physically loving Adam and be in the world. It is a pity that among the inhabitants of Biblical Paradise there was no Nolde’s scholar.