The feeling of being personally cheated in life shows how much we cling on to status and power. The feeling that others are being cheated in life shows our understanding that all people are born with dignity and have the right to be treated with dignity. To sacrifice yourself for the achievement of your personal goals is noble, but to sacrifice yourself for others is often considered unthinkable — and therefore, divine.
Two paintings stand out as human reactions to that sense of being cheated in life. Here I want to point out the blazing gazes of the two religious figures at war in all men’s souls.
Cabernel presents Lucifer, the bearer of light, in handsome male form. It seems as if we are meant to feel a sense of amorous pity for the fallen angel. The viewer is drawn in; we allow the naked Lucifer to rest on our bosom and cry into our arms while muttering, “I hate my father. I’ll get him, you’ll see.” But his impotent rage only amuses us and his vulnerability charms us. We want to take care of him because we know he can’t handle it himself. Like a child throwing a tantrum, we feel a sense of physical superiority and are inclined to help him in his cause.
The Devil is a projection of our base drives. His portrayal as a vulnerable, worldly, rebel-intellectual in both literature and art represents the more seductively depressive mood of humanity — he is a reaction to the realization we achieve as adults: that if God exists he may be indifferent or malicious and that morality may have only been arbitrary social constructs. The temptation to follow the Fallen Angel effortlessly plays to our primal drives.
However, the opposite of the Devil is not an almighty, terrifying, fascist father figure distant from personal human conflict. The opposite of the Devil is a representation of humanity’s more tender, hopeful mood: a meek philosopher who can love despite being persecuted, who rebels against man’s law in favor of those who have been shunned by society. Not a king, but a carpenter. Rising from a fall requires strength of the spirit, which, understandably, is discouraging when it means accepting accountability and doing what’s right despite the fatal consequences.
Christ eyes do not accuse. In Titian’s work, he bears the cross without complaint, with an expression that even makes the viewer feel a sense of guilt. “This is for you,” he seems to say, but he says it lovingly, as if showing you that he will suffer anything if it means that you do not have to. He looks directly at you, and only at you. The eyes of Cabernel’s Lucifer looks away with conviction, pain, and hatred. It consumes him, as well as the viewer. We can see that he is filled with corrupted dreams of what he will do, the terror he shall inflict on those who wronged him. Lucifer is clouded with darkness and he cannot see past his own wounds.
In contrast, the eyes of Titian’s Christ looks at you with the same conviction and pain, but this time also with tenderness. He exposes his vulnerability, but he does not need you to take care of him. He takes care of himself and even lets himself experience it fully. “This is how things are, there is no use denying it, but you can be sure that I am doing something about it.” He does not waste time licking his wounds, he pushes through despite them, because he knows that his body is merely a vessel for a greater purpose. He does not need your pity. He does not need to lie on your bosom and whine about it. He goes on and does what is needed to do. “If it is in your will to take this cup away from me, so be it. If not, then I shall gladly drink it.” In doing so, he achieves greatness.
All life is suffering. The solution is not to despair — the solution is to be able to say, especially in the most harrowing of days that this too shall pass. Like parasites we are surprisingly resilient, and we often underestimate our capacity to adapt. However, it doesn’t always feel this way. Outside of religious purpose or worldly pleasure, there seems to be no substantial motivation to keep living. But even then, as the philosopher Montaigne says, “if worse comes to worse, we can sheer off the bung of our misfortunes whenever we like: death can end them.” Thinking about death reveals how we have made out the meaning of life, because often, the reasons we have for dying are also the reasons others have for living.
Death itself is not to be feared: either there is an afterlife and we shall be reunited with our deceased loved ones, or there is no afterlife and all eternity is an undisturbed rest. The constant thought that all things shall return to dust may be taken as a revitalization of our own lust for life: to satiate curiosity and indulge in passion and leisure, with prudent but little thought outside of today.
Humankind is dwarfed by the magnitude of time and space; one ought to consider in all humility that we may never, in our lifetime, comprehend where all creation is headed — that is, either perfection or ruin. What we know is that we are capable of doing something, now.