On Three Separate Occasions: Triangles and Trauma in William Kentridge’s Triptychs

Xenocrates (396-313 BCE) was the third head of the Platonic Academy. He studied with Plato and had traveled with him to Sicily. He is most well known for developing, from Plato’s texts (e.g. the Symposium) and teachings, a theory of demons. Writing centuries later, Plutarch tells us how Xenocrates used to teach his theory of demons using the method of a sequence of triangles.

The gods, in their perfection, are represented by equilateral triangles and humans in all of their flaws are represented by scalene triangles. To show their intermediary status between gods and humans, Xenocrates represented demons as isosceles triangles, sharing immortality with the gods, but the passions with the humans. Yet this simple triangular schema was not the only way that Xenocrates conceived of daemons. In another work, Plutarch refers to Xenocrates’ division of daemons into good and bad as follows:

Xenocrates thinks that unlucky days and any feasts that involve some blows, lamentations, fasts, abusive speech, or obscenities are unrelated to honors given to the gods and good daemons but that there are in the environment around us natures that are great and strong but intransigent and sullen that delight in such things and, when they happen upon them, turn themselves to nothing worse.

Here the philosopher appears to be relating his theory of daemons to popular religious discourses and rituals, but the question remains, is there a triangular form for these bad daemons? While it is not possible to conceive of an intermediary triangle between the isosceles and the scalene, the scholar of ancient Platonism John F. Finamore has suggested that there could be a shift in the size and internal angles of the daemonic isosceles that in its move away from divine goodness gets closer to the flawed, mortal scalene.

Perhaps as…triangles approach the 60-degree angle of the equilateral triangle, the resulting daemon is more rational and  vice versa, by the greater disparity between the equal angles and the unequal one, the more irrational the daemon is.

Finamore concludes this speculative argument about Xenocrates’ demonology by stating: ‘”Further speculation is useless”. That said, perhaps one of Xenocrates’ evil daemons was in the air yesterday when President Trump unceremoniously fired FBI Director Comey. On reading his statement, in the letter of termination, about his gratitude for Comey’s reassurances ‘on three different occasions’ that he (Trump) was not under investigation, I was immediately struck by how this was offering too much information. (Republican representative Justin Amash of Michigan described this statement as ‘bizarre’). If he wrote this with the express purpose of reassuring everyone else that he was not linked to Russia during his campaign (‘look, I’ve been cleared three times!’), it doesn’t stop the reading that, as President, he felt like he should not be under investigation (‘three strikes and you’re out’).

Of course, this is all speculation and we will now not know if the firing of Comey was a preemptive strike as there was not going to be a fourth time he was disconnected from the investigation. As with Xenocrates, looking for a fourth triangle to represent the evil daemon is futile – perhaps we need to look within the triptych of triangles to find the seeds of doubt. Here we can look to Trump’s wording: ‘separate occasions’. Once again, these words are being used to reassure, but they could also be read as a variation on his professing too much – ‘look, not only have I been cleared three times, but they were on three separate occasions!’.

If within Trump’s statement we can sense seeds of doubt (without waiting for a fourth clearance), perhaps we can extend Xenocrates’ demonology to the use of the triptych by artists. The example that came to mind was that of the 1980s work of South African artist William Kentridge. Throughout this decade, Kentridge made several triptychs (e.g. Dreams of Europe, 1984-5; The Conservationist Ball; Culling, Gamewatching, Taming,1985; Art in a State of Grace, Art in a State of Hope, Art in a State of Seige, 1988 – below).

In an informative blog post I found on Kentridge’s work, which compares his triptychs to those of Max Beckman and Francis Bacon, the following statement by Kendridge is quoted about his use of the form:

Firstly you have a series of images of the same place, but each is different because that space is occupied by a different center piece each time. Time has passed between each image, objects have been rearranged and even the viewpoint has changed slightly. Secondly, and far more importantly, is the dislocation of space … You set up the continuity between images and then refuse to let it happen. Working with drawings also has to do with story telling … There is no necessary continuity between the images.

This description is especially pertinent (and may be directly made in explanation of) his 1985 triptych The Boating Party, made in direct response to Renoir’s famous 1881 painting Luncheon of the Boating Party.

Comparing and contrasting these works, we can see the chaos and violence of South African society, between the white aristocratic scene (as appropriated from Renoir) and the brutality in the townships, represented by the figures of raw meat, animals and the burning tire (a reference to the torture method of ‘necklacing’). In this work, the grotesque and the refined infiltrate each step of the sequence. We could see the burning tire as some kind of disruptive culmination (‘things are getting worse’) but also a mere variation on the theme of the first two panels. It is as if we are within that scene overseen by the evil daemon described by Xenocrates, where it is within the ritual (the feasts) that we encounter the trauma (the blows, lamentations, fasts, abusive speech and obscenities). Is it possible that within Trump’s statement about the ‘three separate occasions’ of reassurance that we can find, not evidence for the President’s separation from allegations, but instead some traces of the traumatic memory of Russian interference in his campaign? (As if saying: ‘I know it happened, but I’ve been cleared three times on three separate occasions, so did it really happen?’). Again, like Xenocrates’ triangles this is idle speculation. But as with the treacheries of apartheid South Africa, once the truth is out and the histories are written, it is hard not to go back to moments of trauma and its enunciation (such as Kentridge’s triptychs) to see then and there what we know now. We shall see.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *