The title of Beyond Measure, the new novel by B.C. writer Pauline Holdstock, suggests a world in which moral considerations have been discarded, in which even Protagorass relativist dictum that man is the measure of all things has given way to the idea that the ethical realm has been abandoned altogether. This is the world of the Italian Renaissance; from the opening pages, which vividly depict a crowds bloodthirsty reaction to a double hanging, to the final pages, which follow the creation of a living boy of
pure gold for a celebration, the reader is plunged into a society which subjects the human body and spirit to innumerable abuses and humiliations, but which simultaneously prizes beauty above all else. The novel follows events in the lives of a number of artists living and creating in a decadent society in which moral criteria have been supplanted by aesthetic ones, and in which creating beauty is all that matters.
The artists-Matteo Tassi, a sadistic sculptor; Paolo Pallavicino, who conducts anatomical demonstrations in the name of art; and Sofonisba Fabroni, a painter whom, Holdstock tells us in an Authors Note, is loosely based on Artemisia Gentileschi-allow nothing to interfere with their labours, which they consider to be divinely inspired. In order to justify his behaviour, Paolo tells himself that art can be understood as the revelation of Gods creation:
In experience can nature be known. In art she can be revealed. It is this amassing of experience, this thorough and rigorous investigation of what is before the eye, that is the principal duty and chief dignity of man. For the duty of man is to know God. And to know God, man has only to look to his creation.
Paolo amasses experience through flaying and dissecting human bodies in his byre in the dead of night; he then reveals his knowledge in his sketches. Similarly, Sofonisba has a revelation while sketching a calf that is being killed: The terror that she saw in the eyes of the calf transcended purpose, transcended finality and so was marked by a strange beauty: a reflection cast back by the flaring of compassion in the heart of the viewer. The artists view of flesh-both human and animal-as raw material which exists solely for their use is partially explained by the novels epigraph from Girolamo Cardano, which distinguishes between the material existence common to the beasts and the higher plane of existence inhabited by those eager for glory and high endeavour. The novel depicts the various ways in which those who exist in the first category are violated by those who exist in the second-acts that are justified in the name of beauty.
In other gruesome examples of the subordination of moral norms to aesthetic requirements, a fetus is cut out of a dead womans body and used as the genesis of a bronze casting, a vest is sewn from skin flayed from the body of a hanged man and is used in a series of elaborate and cruel humiliations, women are raped, countless human bodies are dissected, and a boy dies as a result of being covered in gold. The most disturbing examples of the characters convictions that Cardano was right to posit two levels of existence are found in the treatment of the novels sole sympathetic character, a slave named Chiara whose skin is marred by large piebald markings. Her lack of surface beauty serves as justification for the cruel treatment she endures at the hands of individuals who view her, variously, as a curiosity, an animal, and a devil. Indeed, Paolos fantasy of peeling off layers of her skin, measure by measure, to reveal a more beautiful surface beneath her ugliness, is a chilling reminder of the characters complete disregard for human life, except as means to attaining beauty.
For the artists of Holdstocks novel, beauty is found not only through peeling back surfaces to reveal natures secrets, but also in embellishing natures raw materials to create an aesthetically superior product. Holdstock provides many examples of this, but one of the most arresting is Paolos decoration of a lizard with gold medallions attached with the finest silver wire threaded through the creatures hide. This mutilation causes the animals skin to leak pus, and makes movement difficult, but the artists sole concern is with the creation of beauty. Later, the lizard is referred to by others as an entirely new creature and Paolos creation,, suggesting that these people do in fact see themselves as privileged with a higher order of being, artist-gods invested with the power of creation. The lizards transformation is paralleled with a more tragic work of artistry-the making of a golden boy for a parade in honour of the appointment of a new cardinal. The implication, which the epilogue informs us has been glimpsed by at least one character, is that the desire to dissect or to enhance that which occurs naturally, when unmoderated by an understanding of what constitutes acceptable treatment of living beings, leads to unspeakable cruelty, pain, and death.
In Beyond Measure, Holdstock has created a fascinating portrayal of a society obsessed with surfaces, which sees the creation of beauty as ample justification for torture, mutilation, and murder. Unfortunately, the unpalatable subject matter results in a novel that at times alienates the reader: while the acts performed by the characters are described in chilling detail, we do not see the works of art which serve as justification; thus, while the characters consider themselves beyond judgement, the reader perhaps finds it all too easy to judge. The moral universe, obliterated by the stroke of a paintbrush, has been returned to us, but without the subtle colouration we might expect. Ultimately, though, Holdstock has written an entertaining novel that grapples with issues about the relationship between art and morality and asks a question that is perhaps as relevant to the twenty-first century as it was to the sixteenth: in a society that values surface beauty above all else, do we lack the moral depth to determine how we ought to live? Lisa Salem-Wiseman
(Books in Canada)
-- Books in Canada