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Leo’s ‘Last Supper’

In response to:

Leo's Last Supper from the July 18, 2002 issue

To the Editors:

I wonder if Mr. Butterfield would be willing to reconsider one small point in his review of my Leonardo’s Incessant Last Supper [NYR, July 18]. At issue is the action of Saint Thaddeus, the Apostle second from right. Goethe proposed that Thaddeus’s hands perform one compound gesture, the raised right about to slap down the left—a gesture, says Goethe, still observable among simple folk (Naturmenschen) to express “What did I tell you! Isn’t it what I’ve always suspected!” (“Hab’ ich’s nicht gesagt! Hab’ ich’s nicht immer vermuthet!“)

My interpretation accepts Goethe’s insight that the two hands act on one impulse, but proposes a slower pace, the raised right in solemn descent to be cupped in the open left—which yields a familiar gesture of eucharistic reception.

Mr. Butterfield is free to resist my sense of the gesture’s twofold interpretability (colloquial and sacramental), but not on the grounds that “Goethe describes what Thaddeus is doing [whereas] Steinberg predicts what the Apostle is about to do.” The predicted hand-slap Goethe foresees is not presently visible; it is, he believes, about to occur. Thus both readings predict; both look to an imminent resolution. Goethe just wants it quicker.

Leo Steinberg
New York City

Andrew Butterfield replies:

Professor Steinberg seems to believe that his interpretation differs from Goethe’s primarily in the different speeds they assign to the movement of Thaddeus’s hands. But for Professor Steinberg’s interpretation to be correct, he must do something that Goethe did not have to do in his analysis: he must foretell the exact position of Thaddeus’s hands at the conclusion of their motion. Leonardo’s picture, however, simply does not provide enough information to enable the viewer to determine this. There is no basis for saying what gesture Thaddeus will make after the moment depicted in the painting has ended. To claim that Thaddeus will gently and reverentially cup his hands is unduly speculative and overly hypothetical.

To the Editors:

I was impelled to write by Andrew Butterfield’s peculiar review of Leo Steinberg’s Leonardo’s Incessant Last Supper. As a literary critic, I of course can’t pretend to any expertise in art history. I write rather to describe how a critic should be read by a reviewer. I do not think that Mr. Butterfield is reading Mr. Steinberg in the right way. Mr. Butterfield grants, toward the close of his review, that “Leo Steinberg is among the most brilliant art historians at work today; and the book is full of what we have come to expect from him: dazzling perceptions eloquently revealed.” All my own readings of Steinberg—and the Norton lectures that Steinberg recently gave at Harvard—confirm this judgment.

Yet Mr. Butterfield says, reproachfully, that Steinberg “believes it to be his duty to announce what he sees, even at the risk of being wrong.” What else, conceivably, could be the duty of a critic except to “announce what he sees”? All the critic has to offer is—given a learned preparation—his “subjectivity.” Mr. Butterfield thinks there is something wrong with “subjectivity” and feels that it can lead to “explanation that is not anchored in history.”

But no interpretation, whether in literature or art, can ever be so firmly “anchored in history” as to be irrefutable. Eliot recommended intelligence as the sine qua non for the critic. If one has found the critic intelligent in the past one is glad to look through his or her eyes in the present, to share in that valuable “subjectivity,” entrusting oneself to it.

Mr. Butterfield seems to think that because modern masterpieces exhibit complexity an older one cannot, that “complexity” is a modern notion invented by Freud and Joyce. It is true that Freud and Joyce may have helped us see the masterpieces of the past in ways that they have not been seen before (think of Freud on Macbeth). But surely that complexity was there in Shakespeare waiting to be discovered, as the eucharistic symbolism of The Last Supper was waiting to be discovered.

The complexity Steinberg suggests as a property of masterpieces is not a surprising quality. We are accustomed to finding it in literary masterpieces of the Renaissance—why should we be astounded to find it in Renaissance art or architecture? Mr. Butterfield finds it improbable that “artists as utterly singular and dissimilar as Picasso and Leonardo are seen to manifest the same underlying principles.” But structural multiplicity and ambiguity can be found in Hamlet as much as in Ulysses; it would be patronizing to think of Hamlet as less complex than Ulysses, or of The Last Supper as less able to contain complexity and ambiguity than Les Demoiselles d’Avignon.

Mr. Butterfield concludes his review by saying that Leo Steinberg “fails to show that this vision was meant by the artist or that it was understood by those who saw the painting some five hundred years ago.” One can never show that one’s interpretation of Shakespeare’s sonnets was intended by Shakespeare or understood by those who saw the poems some 400 years ago. Who would expect me to show such things, and how would it impugn my interpretation of the sonnets if I could not show them?

Mr. Butterfield does not seem to understand what it means to be a critic, nor what a critic’s obligations are. Mr. Steinberg by contrast—as his magnificent book demonstrates—knows the obligation of a critic: to mediate, through an informed subjectivity, the totality of the artwork as he intuits its reasons for being as it is. Not everyone will agree on all the evidence adduced, and a reviewer may well object to aspects of interpretation, but not on the ground that Leo Steinberg has “announced what he sees.” It is impossible now, looking at The Last Supper, not to see its eucharistic intent, so finely discovered and defended by Steinberg.

Helen Vendler
Porter University Professor
Department of English and American Literature and Language
Harvard University
Cambridge, Massachusetts

Andrew Butterfield replies:

In the acknowledgments to The Incessant Last Supper, Leo Steinberg lists Helen Vendler among the people “who cheered the making of this book.” To judge from her letter, however, Professor Vendler misunderstands the book. Throughout her letter she talks about the “critic” and the goals of criticism, which, she suggests, need not be bound by the limits of historical evidence or authorial intent. But The Incessant Last Supper is a work of history, not of criticism. Steinberg does not seek merely to give an interpretation of the picture; rather, he attempts to establish the exact nature of Leonardo’s specific and conscious intentions when making the Last Supper, and Steinberg attempts to do so, in no small part, on the basis of historical evidence. Furthermore, Steinberg’s dispute with Goethe and others who have interpreted the picture has a historical premise: he claims that they have forgotten and obscured the original meaning of the painting as intended by Leonardo and understood by its audience.

Professor Vendler also misrepresents my objections to Steinberg’s book. Nowhere in my review do I discuss the roles of subjectivity, intuition, and complexity in interpretation. The views Professor Vendler ascribes to me are unsubstantiated inferences wholly of her own making. Nor do I ever accuse Steinberg of an excess of subjectivity or complexity. I made a very different point: that the evidence he presents to demonstrate the validity of his interpretation is unconvincing. As I wrote, Mr. Steinberg cannot be said to have “discovered” the eucharistic aspect of The Last Supper, as Professor Vendler claims he did. It is his emphasis on it that seemed to be excessive and unsupported.

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