The Haywain by Hieronymus Bosch is almost as complex as the Garden of Earthly Delights. It carries a similar message; that of desperate pessimism. Even in the darkest of the Christian books of the Bible Hell exists for the damned, but some souls are saved, and for them there is the opportunity for eternal life. Not so in the vision of Bosch, which moves through universal folly to endless damnation, without a hope of heaven.
On the backs of the side panels, there is a single, bitter and sad painting of a poor elderly, homeless peddler defending himself with a stick against a snarling dog. In the background a couple are dancing to a shepherd’s bagpipe and on the other a traveler is being robbed and stripped and tied to a tree. In the foreground is a skull and leg bone of a horse, with two carrion crows. Who is this peddler, this exile wandering through an alien world?
The center triptych is symbolic of human folly and sin; Paradise on the left is complicated and hell on the right is devils building a strong tower. A bank? The world of money? The central panel contains many types, but it is led by demons. Before the grave and important personalities is a huge wagon piled with hay. Hay is useless except as fodder for animals, therefore this must mean that the pursuits of individual life are worthless, even for dignitaries like Kings, princes and popes.
Also, the Bible compares human life to grass which grows up and dies quickly. Men are “like grass which groweth up. In the morning it flourisheth, and groweth up; in the evening it is cut down, and withereth.” Like Stalin, no compunction about mass slaughter which he considered cutting the grass. Or, like the Byron epigram: The World is a bundle of hay/Mankind are the asses who pull/Each tugs it in a different way/And the greatest of all is John Bull.
The groups of people surrounding the hay wagon typify various kinds of silliness and wrongdoing. A woman quarreling with a cripple is about to knife him. A duelist has disarmed his opponent and is cutting his throat. A fat fryer is drinking in a bemused way and ignoring a nun who is praying for him. Three of the devils are holding something that may be one of the shafts of the hay wagon. If it is, they are supplying the motive power. With their energy and the zest with which they move it conveys a sense of the victorious. They are taking over.
Look at the calm impercipient faces of the great men following in this triumphal procession; they are satisfied and contented with their movement through the world and do not know where it is leading them. In heaven, the Savior has thrown up his arms in helplessness. The original creation of mankind and angels has gone awfully wrong; the act of redemption through his sacrifice on the cross was a meaningless gesture. Useless. Humankind, in spite of god, is determined to go to Hell. Back then, this scenario may have either been an obscenity or a mania, however today, it is not so far removed from our experience; people living for themselves and one another in a brittle, dreamlike present, without effort, aspiration or ideal.
A picture of madness, of insensate folly. Virtually nobody is doing anything of any value to anyone. Almost all the figures, looked at from our distance, are absurd. A banality of evil? progressively and complicit in their efforts to bring about a Hell? Hannah Arendt theory of thoughtlessness? And Guy Debord’s Society of the Spectacle:
Joseph Heath on Thorstein Veblen: Once the predatory class is sufficiently entrenched, fewer opportunities present themselves for displays of prowess. Thus this class invents for itself new, labor-intensive activities, which may involve great effort and skill, but which are demarcated from the activities of the laboring classes by virtue of being explicitly futile in their aim. Sport is the most obvious example, but more controversially, Veblen also includes under this rubric religious observances, etiquette, esoteric learning (such as classical languages), aesthetic appreciation, “domestic music,” and a variety of other activities ….
…Hence the perverse spectacle of the best (if not necessarily the brightest) applying themselves with boundless energy and selfless commitment, developing advanced competencies in activities that have absolutely no redeeming social value. The term “leisure class” is, in this respect, somewhat misleading, since members of this class often find their lives to be just as hectic and demanding as those of the laboring classes. This is why Veblen describes leisure, not as mere “indolence,” but as a “performance”. (For example, he observes that, “good breeding requires time, application and expense”). Read More:http://homes.chass.utoronto.ca/~jheath/veblen.pdfa
Thorstein Veblen.The concept of “property,” extending beyond mere personal possession, emerges also during this stage, modeled on the relationship of domination toward women. Ownership begins with the domination of women (what we would now call “mate-guarding behavior”), and is subsequently extended to encompass physical objects. It is therefore, first and foremost, a system of rank. “Ownership began and grew into a human institution on grounds unrelated to the subsistence minimum. The dominant incentive was from the outset the invidious distinction attaching to wealth” Read More:http://homes.chass.utoronto.ca/~jheath/veblen.pdf