The Flesh, the Devil, and the World


In Albrect Dürer’s 1513 engraving “Knight, Death and the Devil” the knight deals the others by riding right on by them as if they were not there; according to art historian Erwin Panofsky, the good knight’s sharply defined  profile contrasting with the bad Death’s and Devil’s sfumato. Received v. relative right and wrong, perhaps? He also quotes a friend of Dürer, Dutch philosopher Erasmus, who said there were three—not the above-mentioned two—“unfair enemies” to be fought; they are old Christian nemeses, “the flesh, the devil, and the world.” do flesh and the world share death, or do the three terms simple redistribute particular troublesomes of humanity?

So, now—exactly 500 years later—on to my “engraving,” where I take Dürer two and make it Erasmus’ three. To begin I’ll merge Dürer’ war horse and loyal hound into an Uncle Sam. You might think Sam should be the knight, who in Jorge Luis Borges 1st poem about the print is a heroic figure who “…whosoever looks at [him]/intuits that within there’s neither falsehood/nor the pale of fear.” But, in truth, the symbol of the “Government of the people, by the people, for the people,” is no Borgesian “knight of iron” but just a tame ride for his corporate capitalist master in a suit, worn as armor.

The flesh or lack of it: Art historians debate whether Dürer’s knight is a Christian soldier for whom death is an adversary or if he is secular mercenary for whom it is a constant companion. Death is neither to a corporate capitalist. They are not flesh like us. Borges agrees, “The clepsydra’s successive measure/counts my time, not his eternal now.” So Dürer’s old man death and his hourglass (Borges’ water clock, too) I erase. Le CEO est mort, vive le CEO!

The world: I’ve given Dürer’s under-hoof lizard a promotion, he’s now, again from Borges, “Beneath the esoteric helmet lies the stern/Profile, as cruel as cruel as the cruel sword that /Lies in wait.” The serpent is now the knight, an executive for the red in tooth and claw World Inc. where “Your lot is hard/for you command, affront.”

The devil: According to 20th century Futurist J.D. Bernal, the devil “…has lost individuality, [but] is still as powerful as ever.  The devil is the most difficult of all to deal with: he is inside ourselves, we cannot see him.” So I’ve added a real person hitching a ride from the inhuman knight. She is Bernal’s decidedly non-Christian internalized devil; she is our [OK, just my] “desires and fears, imaginations and stupidities.” (Bernal)

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Borges wrote two poems on the subject, the first, which mocks the knight; he says “You are brave” but only to command and affront.  And he says the knight, “…will not prove unworthy, German, of the Devil and of Death.” Is Borges being ironic; does he mean worthy adversary or comrade? He was writing these words in the late 60s surely the concept of “knight [political/corporate leader] in shining armor” had become wholly ironic by then.

In the second poem Borges mocks himself by praising the knight. Both face “a throng of shades.” But Borges says the knight “…will hold [his] path/Imperturbable, imaginary, eternal.” While via his own “briefer path” the poet “…will become but ash and darkest space;/I, who set out last, will first attain/My mortal end;”

Borges’ first poem is his cynical thoughts about the content of print; the second is his nostalgic thoughts about his encounter with it.  In the second he says, “…of what forgotten night, of morning of some ancient day did I my own eyes discover this fantastic work.” he then says the print, “the everlasting epic scheme that Dürer dreamed” did “lie in wait and encounter me” like Death and the Devil do so for Dürer’s knight.

But he adds that the image of death reached through the print to touch him as well, “It is I not the paladin who is exhorted by the white old man…” So Borges sees the knight as eternal, who survive the encounters; and himself as mortal, for death will take him for sure.

But who is the knight? Is he an ideal of worthy protector against events inevitable and/or evil, or is he part of a timeless work of art, an eternal image? Is he the mortal artist, made immortal by his work, as the “Knight of unswerving sword and of the rigid woods” could certainly apply to the engraver Dürer with his burin and block? (Translation of the poems is by Robert Lima, from “’Knight, Death and the Devil’—Dürer’s Imprint  on Two Poems by Borges,”

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Let’s get back to the drawing,  and away from the term paper text and ask what’s with all the hands?  Explanation upon explanation explains this. We have Renaissance man Dürer’s take on Erasmus’ humanist take on the sometimes heretical Peter Abelard’s take on the Christian St. Mark. Then we have my anti-plutocratic take on both Borges’ existentialist take on Dürer and on J.D. Bernal’s Marxist take on Erasmus, et. al. The hands are there’s my intertextual take on my socio-aesthetic take. In a sentence; art is a lot of things to a lot of people.