Old-Fashioned Art?

Yesterday, while on a local history walk I asked the historian if he had seen the current exhibition of the Treasures From the Shipley Collection at the Shipley Gallery, Gateshead. He hadn’t so I told him there were a number of seventeenth century Dutch Mannerist paintings on show. I expressed my admiration for them and he replied. “People aren’t interested in those kinds of paintings nowadays.”

At the time I thought I was out on a limb, but afterwards I tended to agree with him. His response got me to question my own reasons for liking the paintings. Was I enamoured because the paintings were centuries old and had been cleaned to show bright and shiny colours? Was I harking back to pre-modernist times when all paintings were representational rather than abstract or conceptual? Was there even a hint of snobbery in my admiration? (I am aware that many people do not even step inside a gallery.) After all such paintings, along with the huge and impressive Tintoretto in the gallery, are examples of ‘high art’ and, that the distinction between ‘high and low art’ is anathema to art critics today. There may be some truth in this latter claim as I do believe in a kind of ‘gold standard’ in art. No amount of pleading will convince me that Andy Warhol’s Marilyn prints are qualitatively on a par with Leonardo da Vinci’s Virgin of the Rocks. Yet, this is what post-modernist critics claim!

However, I’d like to make clear I am not a reactionary or debunker of modern art in the tradition of Brian Sewell. There is much I enjoy in contemporary art: Anthony Gormley, Andy Goldsworthy and Robert Smithson to name but three which come to mind.

I’ll choose David and Abigail as one of the paintings to discuss. It was thought to be by the Dutch artist, Joachim Wtewael (1566-1638), but now is designated as ‘after’ the artist.

Wtewael, Joachim Anthonisz., 1566-1638; The Meeting of David and Abigail

When I first saw it I had no idea what was going on in the picture. I had a vague idea it referenced a bible story. Even so, I admired the skill of the painter to depict people, horses, trees and buildings in harmonious colour and tone and I noted the convincing perspective. I had to wait until I got home to look up the story – those visitors with smartphones can do this while looking at the painting!

Now, here is our first hurdle. Not many of us today see the relevance of bible stories. However, I was prepared to put that to one side. Art Aestheticians often talk about the principle of ‘disinterestedness’ when looking at art. They ask us to step into the artist’s shoes and not make snap judgements based solely on personal preferences.

So, in a nutshell the story is as follows:

Nabal, married to Abigail, is a rich landowner with many cattle and crops. He is proud and selfish. David has allowed Nabal’s men to graze cattle on his land and yet when David asks for food and shelter one day, Nabal refuses. David is offended and arms his 400 men who are under orders to kill Nabal’s men. Abigail hears about the plan and sets out with friends with food and drink to meet David. They meet and Abigail says her husband is an arrogant fool and she implores forgiveness. That’s David on horseback on the right with Abigail kneeling. Miraculously, her intervention does the trick as David is moved by Abigail’s determination, compassion and generosity. (Later, poor Nabal is ‘smitten by the Lord’ and dies – oh dear, this sounds like the old Old Testament ‘eye for and eye’ justice! David then marries Abigail).

The figures on the left are Abigail’s men carrying supplies and food, and those on the right are David’s soldiers. There is hence, a perfect symbolism in the composition with Abigail ( the force for compassion) in the centre of opposing forces. The two main tree trunks form a kind of arch which frame the crucial meeting of the protagonists.

If we are to take any spiritual teaching from this archaic story today, surely we can agree that reconciliation is superior to vengeance and war. In our own time we only need to think of Northern Ireland. And, on an individual level, forgiveness is a wonderful gift. Taking a leaf out of Alain de Botton’s book, Art As Therapy, I always try and relate art works (whether paintings, novels, plays, or music) to my own life; they can add to self-understanding. (The book, Art As Therapy,  is co-written with John Armstrong. Published by Phaidon, paperback 2016.)

To my eye, such paintings are not so much ‘old fashioned’ but timeless. They may not give up their magic straight away but with a little patience and, above all, leisure and time to look in a sustained manner, they can provide so much aesthetic pleasure.

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Skylark Between Generations

I listened to, and watched, skylarks at Corbridge on Sunday. Along by the River Tyne.

 

I set off with a sack of cares upon my back;

though the sunshine bathed my face with warmth;

and after spotting goosanders in the river

ended walking an inch above a sandy track.

*

I started out in bright sunshine

my mirror-mind besmirched with black.

My mood began to lift when I heard a tune:

a skylark singing a song I knew was mine.

*

My distant uncle heard the self-same sacred word

cut down in youth along with many men;

he answered another’s call but to his cost;

a soldier who sang about a wonder bird.

*

As I watched the dark envoy soar

I made a vow to John there and then:

to live my life in homage to his memory,

and to aspire to reach the other shore.

 

 

 

 

Aliens Have Landed – Really?

Alien-Pyramids-940347

This is a longer version of something I wrote for an online astronomy course I’m doing.

Ancient monuments such as Stonehenge, Chacon Canyon and Chichen Itza were clearly built with astronomical functions in mind. There are many alignments in these structures which, when used, predict solstices, equinoxes, moon positions, star positions and even eclipses! Those who argue that they are evidence of alien intervention underestimate the knowledge-base of ancient civilisations.

Knowledge of the movements of heavenly bodies was of vital importance. There were so many practical reasons for this knowledge. Firstly, the people needed a calendar in order to carry out activities such as crop planting and hunting in different seasons– the sun was a convenient object which determined the length of daylight in latitudes away from the equator. The moon was also a convenient ‘clock’ which went through phases in a predictable way and formed the time-interval of the month.

Knowledge of how the constellations changed throughout the year would consolidate understanding of time-intervals. Hence, in Ancient Rome, the year was divided up – first of all into ten months and later into the more familiar twelve months. We can see how much the religion of the Romans was incorporated into sky observations by noting the names of the months and days of the week.

Knowledge of the sun’s, moon’s and star’s movements was also important for navigation. The Ancient Greeks used instruments such as the astrolabe which enabled them to predict when a star would rise.

In the northern hemisphere the star named Polaris appears to be stationary and the other stars rotate round it. This would have been observed by prehistoric people and would have been a reliable means of navigation at night. The Great Bear constellation appears to rotate during the night and would also have been used for navigation and time-keeping before the advent of clocks.

Finally we should remember that religious beliefs were part and parcel of astronomical knowledge in ancient times. The structures I mentioned at the beginning were most likely overseen by priest-astrologers. For example, the Aztecs carved a Megalithic calendar stone known as Montezuma’s Watch which is 12 feet in diameter and intricately carved with astronomical details and life-cycles which are concerned with ceremonial ritual as well as astronomical alignments. According to Aztec religion the world passes through five ages and Quetzalcoatl – one of their gods – was the ruler of the second era. The priest-astrologers had to know when was the appropriate time for a human sacrifice!

Recent research has established that Stonehenge was a meeting place for thousands of people who came from as far away as Scotland.1 It was not only an observatory but a social centre for ceremony and feasting.

We may never know the details of our ancestor’s beliefs but we can be sure they included veneration of the sun, moon, stars and planets. There are many puzzles remaining as to the exact function of many of these structures but there is no need to invoke aliens to explain them. Indigenous people were very knowledgeable and there were vast numbers of people with the skills to build these wonders.

What is Real?

quantum Gormley

This is longer version of an essay I wrote for an online course about Modern Art. The artists I contrast Gormley with are ones included in the course.

Quantum Cloud (1999) by Anthony Gormley

Anthony Gormley came to fame with his Angel of the North which stands a few miles from where I live!

Anthony Gormley uses his own body in many of his works, such as the Angel, but he is insistent that his work is not about individual identity. Unlike artists such as Shahzia Sikander or Faith Ringgold, he is not interested in ethnicity or nationality. His concerns are more universal and even metaphysical. In an interview he even refers to himself in this way:

It hasn’t got anything to do with autobiography. I am a metaphysician. In other words, I’m trying to read the physical or find ways of reading the physical in order to find something hidden.

[From an interview quoted in Art Now, 2002, Continuum.]

Gormley was educated by Catholic monks and although he is not a practising Christian he recognises a spiritual dimension to life – for example he meditates. This ‘something hidden’ which he refers to can be thought of as the spiritual, the ineffable, the numinous, or any aspect of human life which cannot be measured. It also includes the metaphorical/poetic stance in opposition to the literal-minded or what William Blake referred to as Single-Vision.

In the Quantum Cloud series he uses thousands of metal struts in a three-dimensional arrangement. The human forms within the ‘clouds’ are only revealed when the viewer walks round the cloud and different sight-lines suddenly form a figure. The viewer is therefore co-producer of the work of art. As Gormley says:

The act of looking is the act of making the thing that you’re looking at. You actually have to find it.  It’s a process.

Of course, this is how all perception works; inside our skulls a neurological process occurs whereby the brain selects and builds up a picture of ‘reality’ from constant sensory input. What, I believe  Gormley is doing is drawing attention to that fact. He is very much interested in metaphysical questions such as “What is time?” and “What is it like to be a human being?” and “Is knowledge limited to sensory information?” These kinds of questions are apolitical – the idea of Gormley producing an overtly political work, such as those made by Martha Rosler or Jacob Lawrence for example, is unthinkable, if not laughable.

Gormley himself is fully aware of the irony of attempting to suggest the numinous in such a ‘solid’ medium as sculpture. Nevertheless, as we inhabit solid bodies in a seemingly solid world there is not a contradiction in his aims. The Quantum series, especially, more than hints at the atomic-particle reality underlying our usual experience of a solid world.

All of the mystical traditions agree about one thing: that the ‘skin encapsulated ego’ is a kind of self-illusion. In the genuine mystical experience there is no separation between self and the world. Many traditions also talk of an energy body apart from the physical body. Perhaps the clouds of steel bars convey this idea rather well.

Gormley is one of the few artists today who explores the ‘eternal verities’. While other artists pursue political agendas or explore identity and subjective experiences, Gormley seems to return to the very origins of art. Recently, in a television documentary, he is shown looking at hand-prints in a cave. They are some of the first images made by humankind and Gormley is overwhelmed by them. He talks, in hushed tones, about the miracle of spiritual communication stretching from thousands of years ago to the present time. These prehistoric artists used their bodies to make art in a very tactile, direct way; it is little wonder that Gormley was so moved.

Emerson, Woolf and The Ordinary

lighthouse

Another of my essays for the MOOC course on Modernism. Title: Compare the approach to the ordinary in Emerson and Woolf.

The word ‘ordinary’ is somewhat Janus-faced. It can stand for the conventional, which Ralph Waldo Emerson (born 1803) raved against, and it can suggest the ‘unspoilt’ and ‘the unexceptional’ which Virginia Woolf took as her raw material. In this essay, I explore how Emerson and Woolf encompass some of these meanings.

The very title of one of Emerson’s essays, Self-Reliance, signals his revolt against convention. He writes,

Let us affront and reprimand the smooth mediocrity and squalid contentment of the times. . .

A paragraph later he wonders why we attach so much importance to royalty and the aristocracy. This is the familiar Enlightenment denunciation of privilege which came to a head in the American and French Revolutions.

Kingdom and lordship, power and estate, are a gaudier vocabulary than private John and Edward in a small house and common day’s work; but the things of life are the same to both. Why all this deference to Alfred and Scanderberg and Gustavus?

In other words we are all subject to birth, disease and death on the one hand and moments of happiness on the other hand. It makes little difference whether we are kings or commoners. (Although historians often point out that those born in poverty have had a huge handicap. Anyway, Emerson was attacking the upper end of the social strata in this paragraph.)

Emerson’s view of the innate goodness of humankind can also remind us of Rousseau’s ‘noble savage.’ He writes:

What is the aboriginal Self on which a universal reliance may be grounded? [. . .] We note this primary wisdom as intuition, whilst all later teachings are tuitions.

In calling upon us to be self-reliant Emerson is pointing to the opposite state of affairs; that we are mostly slaves of convention and the ideas of others. He describes us as weak figures in contrast to what exists in nature:

Man is timid and apologetic. He is no longer upright. He dares not say ‘I think, I am,’ but quotes some saint or sage […] These roses under my window make no reference to former roses. . . there is no time to them. There is simply the rose; it is perfect in every moment of its existence.

Along with Kant, Hegel, Diderot and Voltaire, he recognises the challenge of thinking for oneself. Remember Kant’s Sapere aude! – ‘Dare to find out.’ In this sense, the ‘ordinary’ is conflated with consensus thinking; with the dead weight of historicism. Like Rousseau he wants us to have the courage to be ‘ahistorical’ – to act from the ‘divine spark’ within. (Yes, Emerson believed in God; albeit his was a pantheistic belief.)

And truly it demands something godlike in him who has cast off the common motive of humanity, and has ventured to trust himself for a task-master.

He downgraded the tendency to seek virtue from past exemplars:

Whenever a mind is simple and receives divine wisdom, then old things pass away – means, teachers, texts, temples fall; it lives now and absorbs past and future into the present hour. [. . .] The centuries are conspirators against the sanity and majesty of the soul.

Virginia Woolf not only embraced ‘the ordinary’ but, like a Zen Master, elevated it to ‘the extraordinary.’ In one of her last diary entries, written in 1941, she more than hints at her technique of writing fiction:

I mark Henry James’ sentence – observe perpetually. Observe the outcome of age. Observe greed. Observe my own despondency. I find that it’s seven and I must cook dinner, haddock and sausage meat. I think it is true that one gains a certain hold on sausage and haddock by writing them down.

Other lexical relatives of the word, ‘ordinary’ include, mundane, humdrum and routine. The repetitive, oppressive nature of life has been humorously portrayed in the film, Groundhog Day and more chillingly in Albert Camus’s essay, Sisyphus. Woolf’s evocation of the extraordinary amongst mundane, transient phenomena can be regarded as her revolt against the temporal and the tendency to ‘package’ experience as ‘this’ or ‘that.’ Woolf often achieves this expansive view of life by describing details in a decidedly mystical tone. Here in The Waves:

You hear me breathe. You see the beetle too carrying off a leaf on its back. It runs this way, then that way, so even your desire while you watch the beetle, to possess one single thing must waver, like the light in and out of the beach leaves. . .

One of the chief characteristics of modernism is its abandonment of religious faith and moral certainties. Lily, in To the Lighthouse, expresses it well:

The great revelation had never come. The great revelation perhaps never did come. Instead there were little daily miracles, illuminations, matches struck unexpectedly in the dark; here was one.

In the novel Lily’s painting is symbolic of the aesthetic outlook; to make something permanent within the impermanent:

In the midst of chaos there was shape; this eternal passing and flowing (she looked at the clouds going and the leaves shaking) was struck into stability.

To bring some of these themes up to date: to live without a ‘comfort blanket’ belief in God is not difficult today. But to live a life of self-reliance and scepticism towards all consensus thinking requires inner resolution and courage. To resist rampant consumerism and negotiate a path through fake news and outright lies tests one’s faith in humankind. What can we rely on, apart from our own moral compass amidst today’s cultural convulsions? In the ordinary course of life we too easily think that what we have is permanent; status, health, possessions, relationships and so on. It can come as a shock that nothing we have is permanent. Woolf portrays this aspect of contemporary life vividly in her novels.

Emerson had a bulkhead against modernist angst – he had a religious faith. Woolf, on the other hand is more representative of modernism’s uncertainties and shifting sands. Her ‘despondency’ ended in suicide.

The etymological roots of the word ‘ordinary’ include the verb ‘to order’ in the sense of to arrange. Woolf’s existential/secular independence resulted in a modest, limited solution to the challenges of existence. She selected and ‘ordered’ words in paragraphs to create a fictional world which reflected the fragmentary, subjective world revealed by science, psychology and politics in the twentieth century.

Urizen and Single Vision

I had some valuable feedback on my manuscript recently. I was taken to task on my apparent denunciation of reason. Here, I attempt to put my position, and Blake’s, in a more accurate light.

There is nothing wrong with the faculty of reason; many philosophers have singled it out as the defining attribute which makes us human. The only problem occurs when it is elevated or singled out as the only faculty or as the primary faculty whereby we attempt to find meaning in our lives. Many writers have revolted against this dominance of reason; writers such as Rousseau, Nietzsche, the Romantic poets of the nineteenth century, and, of course, Blake. Blake personified the ‘rationalising faculty’ as Urizen; the word itself is a clever play on ‘your reason’ and ‘your horizon.’ Blake wrote The Book of Urizen in which he shows how Urizen separates himself from the other faculties of Imagination, Sensation, Intuition and Emotion.

One of the characteristics of ‘reasoning’ is that it attempts to create a model of reality and hence there is always a gulf between the model and reality. The model can be very useful, as are maps, but the danger is that we can mistake the model for reality. This abstraction of reality was partly what Blake was getting at, especially in his abhorrence of Locke, Hume and Bacon.

We can more accurately talk of ‘rationalism’ as a paradigm; a way of approaching reality.

Scott Preston, in his brilliant blog, The Chrysalis, talks of perspectivism. When the early Renaissance artists worked out how to represent perspective in two dimensions they also represented a major shift in outlook. The view of reality was now ‘a point of view’ – a view limited to one position in space (and time) and a view presented to the physical eye looking out at the world. Hitherto, in Byzantine art for example, the picture was not a representation of what the eye saw in one time-bound ‘view.’ Painting then was more ‘a composite’ of what the artist knew and felt and was a representation of Christian mythology. Scott Preston uses this analogy of painting to show how linear, logical thinking has dominated western culture for the last 500 years. He relates it to Blake’s Single Vision and Newton’s Sleep.

What, then is the solution; how can we escape from this restricted view? I don’t think there is a single answer to this – Blake’s prophetic books offer a detailed solution where contraries co-exist. On an individual level we can be more self-aware and not believe that we are our thoughts. We can cultivate an aesthetic appreciation of reality and integrate imagination, intuition, feeling, sensation and thought. Meditation is a method whereby the ‘hidden’ rejected parts of the psyche can come into the open; where the Beast can transform into Beauty.

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The image which I have copied in pen is clearly of someone in torment; Blake has different versions; some have the Urizen-figure surrounded by flames. I find this aspect of the suffering Urizen very relevant. Those of us who struggle with mental health issues know how the mind can imprison us with its relentless ‘washing machine’ of churning thoughts. Blake, too, sees us all as being in exile; we have forgotten our original faces. We have fallen into self-division; this manifests in many ways: body-mind dualism, thought-feeling conflicts, individualism-community tensions, right action conundrums and so on.

Looking at this image, say for a few minutes, is itself a way of by-passing, or tricking, our rationalising mind. Its form and colour may speak to you directly – this is the power of art: it is not about words. I invite you do the same with all of Blake’s work which can be found here: http://www.blakearchive.org

Blake’s view of how we use the senses is fundamental. He saw the error of empiricists such as John Locke who thought that truth could be found via the evidence of the senses. This was a too literal and restricted approach. Blake famously wrote that ‘if the doors of perception were cleansed, then everything would appear as it is, infinite.’ This is very similar to the Buddhist idea of observing the contents of the mind and letting the thoughts and feelings settle until the mind becomes like a mirror. Both Blake and Buddhism see our ordinary state of consciousness as being, potentially, problematic. It too readily distorts reality. Both, also, would agree that there is nothing fundamentally wrong with our minds, other than the conditioning (mainly) from parents, teachers and institutions. Blake’s solution is complex and subtle but suffice it to say that he sees us as ‘spiritual beings’ and that we need to use what he terms Imagination or the Poetic Genius to free ourselves from the domination of Urizen.

I don’t want to enlarge on Blake’s mythical-psychological world here; I just invite you to gaze on poor Urizen and ask yourselves, ‘How did he get to be like this?’ and ‘Do I ever feel like this?’

Darwin & Nietzsche: Prophets for Today

darwin as ape

This is my third essay for the Modernism MOOC I am doing. The tilte is: Darwin wrote ‘Man still bears in his bodily frame the indelible stamp of his lowly origin.’ Compare Darwin’s view of the persistent effects of the past with Nietzsche’s work.

A mere eighteen years separate Nietzsche’s Genealogy of Morals (1887) from Charles Darwin’s The Origin of Species (1859). What do these two intellectual giants have in common? Well, much more than appears at first sight. Nietzsche is credited with ‘killing off God’ and Darwin responsible for de-deifying humankind. In Darwin’s theory of evolution, we are not uniquely created by a creator-God. The nineteenth century was the century par excellence of the shaking of the foundations of eternal values and absolutes. Both of these men described homo sapiens as a creature determined by a long history: Nietzsche in terms of civilisation’s decadence and Darwin by the engine of natural selection. Darwin had also read Lyell’s Principles of Geology and realised the fossils he’d found proved the earth was many millions of years old. (Biblical accounts put the Earth at 6,000 years in age!)

Darwin only broached the subject of humankind’s descent in his The Descent of Man (1871) but he was well aware of the shock waves it would send throughout the world. He wrote:

The main conclusion arrived at in this work, namely, that man is descended from some lowly organised form, will, I regret to think, be highly distasteful to many.

The cultural abyss brought about by the nineteenth century’s collapse of values has been described as ‘the disenchantment of the world.’ In this view, we are left seemingly to fend for ourselves in a mechanistic, meaningless world. However, neither Nietzsche or Darwin were philosophical nihilists or pessimists! Both thinkers analysed the past to shed light on the present and future. That subsequent thinkers have appropriated their ideas for their own ends is regrettable. (Scientific reductionism, for example, sees life as purely quantifiable and without intrinsic moral values. The Nazis appropriated ‘survival of the fittest’ in their ‘final solution.’)

Let us examine how these thinkers described the human condition and how, ultimately, today, their findings can be interpreted optimistically rather than being a formula for spiritual disenchantment.

In his Voyage of the Beagle, Darwin describes how he discovered many animals on the different islands of the Galapagos Islands which, although the same genus had different morphic details such as shape and size of beaks in finches:

Seeing this gradation and diversity of structure in one small intimately-related group of birds, one might fancy from an original paucity of birds in the archipelago, one species had been taken and modified for different ends.

The huge amount of data he collected enabled him to come up with his theory of evolution by natural selection. The reverberations of his revolutionary theory can be still felt today in the USA where court cases have been held to determine whether evolution should be taught in schools! Evolution in the Darwinian sense is purely biological but perhaps Darwin himself thought that ‘cultural evolution’ would save humankind from its aggressive, dog-eat-dog inheritance. He writes of humankind’s evolution from savagery to ‘god-like intellect’ thus:

and the fact of his having risen, instead of having been aboriginally placed there, [in the world] may give him hope for a still higher destiny in the distant future.

So, for Darwin, evolution does not diminish humankind; he emphasises our lowly origins but recognises our potential for the future. In hindsight, he has demolished our child-like attachment to an anthropomorphic God. However, his theory, once it was examined and argued over, caused a moral upheaval at the time which cannot be overestimated.

Nietzsche, too, caused consternation among the thinkers of his day. He is famously a ‘philosopher with a hammer.’ His approach is iconoclastic and he undermines the assumptions of the church, state and academia of his time. However, it is a mistake to regard him as a nihilist. He may remorselessly tear down the spiritual structures of his day but one of his books, Ecce Homo, is sub-titled, How One Becomes What One Is. Ultimately he is pleading for humankind to rise up from its legacy of consensus thinking and mental somnambulism. His concept of the Ubermensch is of the free-person who has struggled within him or herself and approaches life anew in each moment. Had he been alive today he would agree with Eckhart Tolle’s insistence on being mindful in the present moment. Only mature people will be able to live without the comfort-blanket of a father-figure God:

Few are made for independence – it is a privilege of the strong. (Beyond Good & Evil, 29)

Examine the lives of the best and most fruitful men and peoples, and ask yourself whether a tree, if it is to grow proudly into the sky, can do without bad weather and storms. (The Gay Science)

The independent thinkers create their own values to replace the values of the past which have been based on fear, rewards and punishments. The Ubermensch accepts the totality of his life; the challenges especially.

What is Nietzsche’s legacy? Is it possible today to live a life-affirming life within a secular framework? What will replace God? Isn’t the defining feature of post modernism a moral vacuum or relativist values? Perhaps The Golden Rule would be a good place to start? This is the universal standard which says ‘do unto others what you would wish them to do to you!’ The negative formulation is – ‘don’t do to others what you would not wish them to do to you!’ Many of us today strive for equity, freedom of expression and fellowship based on empathy and compassion. Many of us today realise we live on a finite planet and that all life is connected. Climate change is a warning that we cannot go on exploiting the Earth’s resources; our self-serving short-term greed has not worked in the past. Only be living with more awareness of the consequences of what we do will we create a world fit for our grandchildren. We need to be content with less.

Both Nietzsche and Darwin were revolutionary thinkers who paved the way for a new way of approaching life. Both men dealt in detail with ‘the persistent effects of the past‘ but today we can see that these effects are not a hindrance but a spur to creating a world free from the shackles of superstition and bigotry. Their message is positive. It is rather like lancing a boil; all the rotten-ness had to be dispelled before healing could start.