Last Updated on May 10, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 619
In 1986, when Heller was composing Picture This, which he originally entitled Poetics, he remarked that his manuscript was "becoming a book about money and war." Although clearly an oversimplification, his statement nevertheless does identify two of the novel's predominant concerns.
Money references pervade the narrative as Heller chronicles consumerism from the invention of money by the Lydians in the seventh century before Christ to the rise of banks and corporations in the Netherlands in the seventeenth century and then to the entrepreneurial maneuverings of Cornelius Vanderbilt and J. P. Morgan in the nineteenth century. Heller's exploration of capitalism centers most strongly, however, upon Rembrandt, whose financial rise and fall parallels the economic fate of the Dutch Republic.
As Heller portrays him, Rembrandt is embroiled in a seemingly endless series of financial woes concerning his wife's dowry, inheritance, and will, the high cost of real estate, collecting and paying debts, compensation from his patrons, his ex-mistress's demand for maintenance payments, and the shifting prices of his art works. With such difficulties it is no wonder that the artist explains that his figures have sad faces because they are worried about money.
The primary consequence of the invention of money, Heller wryly reminds us, is servitude: "With the invention of money in the seventh century before Christ, people became free, like Rembrandt, to borrow at interest and go into debt."
A second consequence of the invention of money, Heller contends, is war. "They fought over money" is his succinct opening to Chapter Fourteen. Heller is referring to the English and Dutch in 1652, but the pronoun could as easily apply to the Athenians and Spartans or the Americans and the Vietnamese. In fact. Heller explicitly underscores the cyclical nature of history, as in his statement: "From Athens to Syracuse by oar and sail was just about equivalent to the journey by troopship today from California to Vietnam, or from Washington, D.C., to the Beirut airport in Lebanon or to the Persian Gulf," War, the author believes, is inevitable in human history, and thus he cynically observes, "Peace on earth would mean the end of civilization as we know it."
Heller's sharpest cynicism, however, is directed not towards capitalism, the government, the military, or the law but rather towards art and history, neither of which he considers able to reflect truth. Heller reminds his readers that there is no proof that Shakespeare wrote the plays attributed to him, that Homer was a real person, or that what Xenophon and Plato recorded about Socrates was accurate. He punctures cherished assumptions, such as that Socrates' death by drinking hemlock was painless or that Periclean Athens was an ideal democracy. He points out that statistics are often lies. The strongest example of the insight that art and history are merely deceptive illusions of reality is Rembrandt's painting of Aristotle Contemplating the Bust of Homer, on which the book centers. In his conclusion Heller writes:
The Rembrandt painting of Aristotle contemplating the bust of Homer may not be by Rembrandt but by a pupil so divinely gifted in learning the lesson of his master that he never was able to accomplish anything more and whose name, as a consequence, has been lost in obscurity. The bust of Homer that Aristotle is shown contemplating is not of Homer. The man is not Aristotle.
By exposing the chicanery of representation. Heller even succeeds in undercutting the achievement of his own novel, for as an epigraph to his carefully researched re-creation of ancient Athens and the Golden Age of Holland, he quotes Henry Ford's aphorism "History is bunk." Thus he invites all who attempt to "Picture This," whatever the subject or medium might be, to confront honestly their limitations.