Jean Louis Hamon's 1852 painting "La Comédie Humaine" hangs at the Musee d'Orsay in Paris. I spent a long time standing before it - so well it captures for me the drama of the "public opinion" and the roles of writers and artists in shaping it, exactly at the time that the phenomenon was emerging as a major social and political force. Illuminating of the historical moment, for me, it was also mystifying and disturbing because of the scene of violence on the puppet theater stage at the very center of the composition. I was at a loss to explain it - until the gruesome events at Sandy Hook have somehow re-articulated this image.
The "folk" in the audience (the parents and their children) are mesmerized by the spectacle, at once naive and horrifically violent, and are dumbstruck like the "silent people" (народ безмолвствует) at the end of Pushkin's "Boris Godunov." But not so, the symbolic figures on both the right and left of the puppet theater. These are the grand interpreters of the course of human events, the Homers, the Virgils, and the Dantes: one easily recognize the skeptic Diogenes, the great dramatists Aeschylus and Aristophanes, and a line of heroic Romans, along with Alexander the Great (?). These wise men are ready to speak, to aver, to pronounce that this is the way the world is. We know from school to trust them as the wise men who turn the chaotic spectacle of human events into a decipherable allegory, the men who disclose history's true meaning, or simply make it so. But do they? Hamon, who placed the wise Athena on top of his Theatre Guignol, gives us a pause.
His "La Comédie Humaine" (he borrowed the title from Balzac series of novels) looks at us from the mid-nineenth-century France, where the tragedies of the ancients appear to have been replaced by the puppet theater allegory of the modern times, when all feel manipulated like marionettes by indiscriminately cruel, unpredictable and invisible forces. Keep staring at the painting, and you will notice that the sages, too, appear a bit deflated, helmets, laurels, and togas notwithstanding. They no longer make their appearance one at a time, as they once did dominating their particular historical horizon; in France of 1852, and everywhere since, they show up as a crowd, like hawkers, each proffering his own understanding, his own book, each competing for our attention in the global flea market of symbols and ideas. Is the truth of Homer better than the truth of Dante? Or does the truth of Dante invalidate the truth of Homer, as it did once? Was Diogenes right to doubt it all?
Nobody can answer these questions with certainty. Hamon, who had chosen for his subject the outdated Neo-Grec style, treats the canonical authority of his heroes with barely disguised irony -- the master trope of modernity, one impossible to shake off in the aftermath of a failed revolution of 1848, the so-called Spring of Nations. When Hamon exhibited his painting, Louis Bonaparte had just staged his cup d'état (December 1851), echoing the coup d'état of Napoleon Bonaparte, his brilliant uncle. Analogous events appear in history, Marx quipped famously, "first time as tragedy, second time as farce"(The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Napoleon, 1852). Hamon's irony had an even sharper edge: his great tragedians, poets, philosophers, and statesmen practically elbow one anther, each flogging his own take on the riddle of history, seemingly oblivious to the fact that it is simply not possible for all of them to be right.
Half a century later, the Russian poet Alexander Blok was smitten by the same ironic allegory of "Theatre Guignol". For him, as for many of his contemporaries, it resonated deeply with their own profound disenchantment following the failure of the Russian revolution of 1905 (and for Blok, personally, his frustration with his own mystical premonition of redemption). Like Jean Louis Hamon in "La Comédie Humane" and Marx in The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Napoleon, Blok gave us a Theatre Guignol version of his own time: the play "Puppet Theater" and a related short dramatic vignette by the same name, with its heart-breaking ending: "The boy and the girl are weeping -- the jolly puppet show is over" (Плачут девочка и мальчик - закрылся веселый балаганчик). Blok's use of the puppet theater motif and, perhaps, Hamon's, too, later inspired Igor Stravinsky and Vaslav Nizhinsky to create the ballet "Petrouchka" which, coming full circle, premiered in Paris in 1911. Few theatrical works offer a more powerful -- and more colorful -- drama of disenchantment than this tale of a puppet's unrequited love, the loss of innocence, and more profound still, the loss of illusion.
Hamon's painting, then, should offer a powerful allegory on which to meditate. As we ponder, struck with grief, the senseless slaughter of Sandy Hook, we may also wonder at our compulsion to look for answers and our inability to find them. When confronted with a horror that violates the fundamental assumptions about the way the world works, we can either seek solace in religion, apparently, not an option for Jean Louis Hamon, or can take time to look at and meditating on his painting. For it encapsulates the utter helplessness of reason and imagination, no matter how majestic and deep, in dealing with what is unthinkable – and real.
Perhaps, this the insight that Jean Louis Hamon wished us to take away by having the horrific Theatre Guignol serve as a pedestal for the goddess of wisdom, Athena.