The Goldfinch in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction (+ Final Thoughts)


Here it is: Fabritius’ goldfinch. Funny. After reading this book twice now, I imagined that the picture would have a eerie kind of bioluminescence–a living glow that would flow through the rectangle in Google images, bounce around some rods and cones and register in my brain as a masterpiece so bright these mortal eyes should be averted. (Also, was I wrong to think the goldfinch would be bright yellow?)

But maybe the reason it doesn’t have that effect was because Google handed me a screen that looked like this:


Professional deep thinker Walter Benjamin wrote a rather dense piece called “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction” in the 1930s. It explores the role of art in an era capable of producing film, photography, and — most interestingly (to me) — machine copies. He posited that a work of art has an aura, and that that aura is based in its uniqueness. Therefore, every time a student puts up a poster of The Persistence of Memory in their dorm or every time someone sips coffee out of a mug imprinted with Monet’s lilies, the original’s aura is depleted.

Benjamin isn’t saying this is necessarily bad, and there’s a lot more to the essay — most of which I’m too obtuse to really wrap my head around, even after reading it several times. But seeing all these reproductions on my computer screen…is that what takes the magic out of the painting? Not according to Tartt’s The Goldfinch.

I was struck by how many twists on Benjamin’s essay come rolling in at the end of The Goldfinch (novel). When Theo is in the Netherlands, escaping from the scene of a heist-on-heist, he knows that the painting is authentic the moment he looks at it during the car ride to Amsterdam. It glows with an ethereal light he knows so well. The entire book seems to imply that The Goldfinch (painting) has a soul inside it, defying all of Benjamin’s claims that a painting’s aura is depleted in an age of mechanical reproduction. Surely the painting has been photographed thousands of times, as indicated by my Google image search. In Tartt’s book, Theo sees reproductions of the painting in art books, newspapers, and even a photograph of Welty in a room with a counterfeit. (Which, by the way, is an image of an image of an image of an image. The last image is the bird itself. Intense.)  Yet the soul of the thing doesn’t seem the least bit damaged by all its reproductions, at least not to Theo.

Even the painting is a reproduction, as Theo knows. He has no doubt that the artist had a live subject, and Boris mentions his certainty that, in a cage full of goldfinches, he could point out with ease the goldfinch. Theo and Boris both seem to believe that they know the bird, as presumably do the many others bewitched by the painting: Welty, Theo’s mother, Lucius Reeve. And yet, at the end, Theo comments that the painting is a trick, a “joke” — these globs of paint and scratches into the canvas and brushstrokes that, as you stand back, transform from what is really just deposited paint into a very convincing representation of a bird. One might point to the painting and say, “It’s a bird,” though really all the viewer is seeing is patterns of paint.

How can this reproduction not be a thing that takes from the soul of the bird? How can the painting have a aura its own, if Benjamin is correct?

Theo even sees the glow of the painting in a forgery, placed on a wall in an old photograph of Welty as a child. It’s difficult to get further away from the original goldfinch (or original goldfinch painting, even) than this image four times removed. But Hobie, the book’s good-hearted creator of forgeries that he never intends to sell, has an answer for Theo. He guesses that it isn’t the originality or uniqueness of art, as Benjamin suggests, that gives art its aura. It’s the beauty of line. If there is a particularly beautiful shape, it doesn’t matter if the object is reproduced or original. That’s why his lovingly created reproductions of antique furniture were so charming — he was reproducing a thing that had beauty, and he was able to preserve the thing that made it beautiful. It seems that Hobie doesn’t buy into Benjamin’s theory at all. But both believe that the original goldfinch painting in itself would lack the mystic quality Theo assigns it.

If Hobie or Benjamin speak true on the subject of the original piece of art lacking a soul–in Hobie’s mind, because it’s the beautiful image of the goldfinch, not the object that is the painting, that’s important; in Benjamin’s mind, because the painting has been reproduced enough to have had its soul depleted)–why is it that Theo so passionately felt that if The Goldfinch (the painting) was destroyed, the world would have lost something important? Why was it so necessary that what he held in his hand was the real thing on the way back to hotel in Amsterdam? I don’t have an answer for this, and I certainly don’t think the novel does, either. And, on another subject, that might be one of my few complaints about the book.

I connect so wholeheartedly to this novel. Just about every page of The Goldfinch absorbs me fully. But there is a lot of incoherence in it. That’d normally be fine with me; life is rather incoherent. But it seemed so important to Tartt, especially at the end, to become some sort of lecturer/philosopher. You have to have a special kind of brain for that. A Walter Benjamin brain. One capable of working out a theory, however crazy, to a certain level of completeness. A brain that can reach beyond bland platitudes and reach a hypothesis that, for instance, isn’t so broad that it can’t be wrong. Tartt is a glorious, deep feeling, intelligent author, but she doesn’t have that brain.

The end of The Goldfinch could have saved if Tartt stayed in-novel. The parts where Boris and Hobie sit down and start talking about “You know, maybe bad deeds can result in something good” is pretty cheesy in a folksy, from-the-mouths-of babes, “Well, little ‘ol me don’t know much about ____, but I’s been thinking…” type of way. But it was tolerable. The whole meta-lecture from Theo at the end, on the other hand, (which goes on for pages and pages) is insufferable. I just went tearing through it the first time, since it was two in the morning and I could see I was close to finished. But this time I sat through every word, focused. It isn’t horrible writing, but it’s patronizing, and it takes you waaaaaay out of the novel to treat you to some “big thought,” stoner ending. The end of the book meant well–it meant to bring us closure after all these pages filled with Theo’s ongoing, unspeakable sadness. But it was reminiscent of–horror of all horrors–John Galt’s speech (a.k.a. Ayn Rand’s excuse to bluster incoherently about her personal world view for a sickening number of pages) in Atlas Shrugged.

Ending aside, I remain firm after my second reading.  The Goldfinch is a spectacular book, full of aching feelings and beautiful intricacies. It contains endless starting points for conversation with others, but it will at the same time be a deeply personal experience for the reader to have. It brought to my mind many philosophies of which I’ve read–not just those of Benjamin, but also those of aesthetes and critics from many fields and varied time periods. It’s a great introduction to ways of thinking about art. as well as to good literature.

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