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Talking Back to History : PICTURE THIS <i> by Joseph Heller (G.P. Putnam’s Sons: $19.95; 336 pp.) </i>

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It’s been 27 years since “Catch-22" gave us a new term for the cultural double bind that keeps us killing each other in war after war. Since then, Joseph Heller has never found the right mix of image, plot and idea to provide shape and substance to his harsh, satiric intelligence. From “Something Happened” and “Good as Gold” through “God Knows,” from business bureaucrats and marriages to Henry Kissinger and the Bible, Heller has gone his strident, often long-winded way, hurling witty grenades at our national ineptitudes, fears and self-congratulatory pomposities, but leaving us virtually, or virtuelessly, unmoved.

“Picture This” seems to reflect Heller’s frustrated artistic yearnings. It’s an effort on Heller’s part to take stock of himself and the rest of civilization past and present. The novel is less a narrative than a study of narratives, less a plot with direction than a series of escapades in time travel in which Heller revisits and revises a few key moments in history and redresses a few of our supposed heroes political and aesthetic.

We begin in Rembrandt’s studio in 1653, as Rembrandt is painting his famous “Aristotle Contemplating the Bust of Homer.” Rembrandt’s wife has died; he is deep in debt, and he is losing his commissions. We watch him work over details of the “Aristotle” painting and begin another, of friend and patron Jan Six. We hear about his relations to two women servants who were also lovers and to his son Titus, and peek into the future at the luminous canvases and abject poverty of his last years.

As Rembrandt paints the various parts of Aristotle’s body, the philosopher becomes more alive to his surroundings in the Amsterdam of 1653. With each brush stroke, Aristotle is able to overhear (and oversee) more of Rembrandt’s conversations and paintings and able to comment (to the reader, not to Rembrandt) on Rembrandt’s art and times. Aristotle tells us about his admiration for Rembrandt the painter and contempt for Rembrandt the man, argues against the financial valuation of life in the Dutch world of the 17th Century, listens to talk about the ongoing European wars. He thinks back to his own life as a student of Plato’s and teacher of Alexander’s, and decides that “not much had improved since his exile and death.” Eventually, “Aristotle” adorns a wall in Italy, spends a couple centuries in obscurity, and is sold to the Metropolitan Museum in New York City for $2.3 million in 1961.

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That’s the book, or picture: Heller in 1988 contemplating Rembrandt in 1653 imagining Aristotle in ancient Greece contemplating a bust of Homer, which might be an artist’s attempt to portray the epic poet (blindly) contemplating the Trojan War, or at least how to turn it into some good stories. We drift back and forth from our 20th-Century vantage to Rembrandt’s mercantile Amsterdam and the Athens of Pericles, Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle. The static tableau of painter and subject, separated by the centuries, is Heller’s excuse to indulge his own multiple preoccupations as writer, soothsayer and democratic prophet.

There are issues of art’s relation to reality on the one hand, and commerce on the other, for example. Rembrandt chose a model to pose as Aristotle who didn’t resemble what Aristotle remembers looking like. (“I like your face better. It looks more real . . . than his does,” Rembrandt insists.) Aristotle is further insulted when several owners of the painting mistakenly assume that the Aristotle figure is a Dutch citizen, then the poet Virgil, before more or less certain identification is made in 1928. And given the confusions about what paintings Rembrandt himself actually worked on, as opposed to his students, it’s not entirely certain that the painting is a real Rembrandt.

But then, of course, we have little idea what Plato actually thought or did either, except as he put words into Socrates’ mouth. And we have only Thucydides to provide the intense “reconstructions,” as Heller calls them, of Pericles’ speeches, delivered 30 years before they were so scrupulously made up by our master historian of Athens. According to Plato (or is it Socrates?), art is to be avoided anyway, because it provides only an imitation of an imitation of the realm of ideas, and so is a dangerous submission to the imagination. And if all this is so, what are we to make of Heller as writer, citizen, or narrator?

To Rembrandt, the problem with art is simpler and more threatening. The more he “was working as he liked” and sacrificing the subject to absorption with light, color and form, the fewer pictures he sold, while former students who imitated his earlier styles grabbed the commissions. (After he dies, of course, all that changes, and the value of each canvas soars until “Rembrandt could not afford a Rembrandt.”)

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“Picture This” increasingly reveals itself as an ingenious if also frequently heavy-handed exercise in historical mirroring. The parallels between the struggles of Athens and Sparta, and Holland and England, and America and Russia, are sometimes oblique, sometimes quite overt. There’s a bemused reference to rebellious Greek “freedom fighters” and to the “cold war” between Athens and Sparta. We find out about Greek “police actions,” and see how the “theory of the dominoes” justifies military intervention far from home.

As America is masked in the history of Athens, so Heller at 65 seems to be dissembling behind his portraits of an aging Rembrandt, Socrates, Plato and Aristotle. It’s hard not to imagine Heller musing on his own predilections as he describes how Rembrandt’s canvases “drank up black,” emphasizes how Rembrandt fell out of favor as he grew more attentive to his art, and stresses Socrates’ “reckless levity and ideological nonconformity” as the source of his persecution.

All these masks and mirrors make for the fun as well as the eventual tedium of “Picture This.” Distrustful of his art, his readers, or both, Heller seems driven to expose the failures of democracy by detailing the artifices and inadequacies of all efforts at representation. It is as if he is conspiring against his own imagination, taunting it with disclosures about how art has deluded those it seems created to enlighten.

“Picture This” is a novel easier to admire than enjoy, a grandiose shaggy dog story in which time chases its own tail, or perhaps tale. Heller’s sardonic ruefulness is finally self-defeating; there’s too much dependence on the isolating victories of irony, and too little feeling for the insistences and intimacies of fancy, to provide resonance to his revelations. By so fiercely hammering away at his themes, Heller strains his immense talent for invention and the reader’s for attention.


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