If she weren’t my wife I would resent her. She sleeps easily. Wherever we find ourselves regardless of climate, altitude, or nation, she will sleep as soon as the lights go out. If she lays flat she will sleep. We laugh at this. I have seen her lose consciousness in mid-sentence. I call her “the chicken” as this bird is known to fall into immediate sleep when the lights go out.
I don’t bring this up to ridicule my wife, and as I mention I do not resent her somnia (if that can be counted a word). I enjoy watching her sleep, especially now as my sense of instability grows. Her sleep, her dreams, even those she can’t recall, put me at ease. She will wake momentarily and with a groggy voice, she will tell me she loves me, or mumble in a soft tone and touch my arm. She, at least, is at peace.
Isn’t that terrible? It is common speech to resign ourselves to leasts. Let me state it differently (so I don’t disgust myself.) Shall I write I envy her quick peace, or clarify and say I do not begrudge her ease. I would very much like a share of that limitless expanse. I, as is clearly implied, do not sleep so easily. I am writing now in a hotel room. Unfamiliar places make me uncomfortable, restless. This room is no exception. It has that cramped feel of transitory living, and a smell of perfumed antiseptic. It is not as homey as I would like. My own rooms are memories, and anchors. I don’t need to rebuild the map of the clear areas on the floor or worry over the strangers next door. Here I am far too aware of being a guest to easily sleep. Please ignore these complaints, I am circumscribing the truth. It isn’t the discomfort of unfamiliar locations. It is the awareness of my identity. It is the unfamiliar person who is assembling behind my eyes. I cannot keep it away when the lights go out, or when the sounds diminish. It waits behind distractions. It is not me. And it is beginning to abandon me as an inconvenience.
I have been considering this for some while for it has not always been this way. I have attempted to discuss it with my wife, but she was disturbed in such a passive way she ignored a good deal of what I said, and forgot the rest or pretended she had. She can see it though. Sometimes her face will cloud with mild worry. She will probe with questions for which she clearly does not want answers. For her pleasure I evade these questions gently, tacitly stating my distress is minor. I must admit my suspicion I am not entirely sure which aspect of me, my old self or this new intruder, she worries over. I wonder if she wants to be free of me, and my new self may be justification. Or even more troubling, I wonder if she works in collusion with my intruder. Again, I have written wrongly: the intruder would seem to be me the other would be almost eternal where I am fleeting. I am well aware of the philosophical history behind this idea, but Aristotle and Pythagoras can’t help me.
It is not minor, this splitting of my identity. Nor do I think it is innocent. I am willing to state it has been calculated. My life has been changed by outside agents. My empiricism, my shield of aesthetics, was an illusion. Experience has worked against me. I sense the infinite as if the invisible chasms of space, the whole universe, had opened up on every side forever reducing and expanding. I have unpleasant anxieties about the stability of the floors under my feet like walking across an ancient and decaying bridge of brittle planks and fraying ropes. These are simply similes. How can I write this about my mind? How do I report this to you with comparisons for it seems incomparable?
My isolation, my solitude, has become a thorn. This is a peripheral occurrence of the extinguishing of many long cherished comforts and abstractions. I have heard that when Howard Carter was opening the chambers of King Tutankhamen’s tomb he saw some ostrich feathers that had lain untouched for 3000 years. They were, for a short second as they had always been, but beneath his new breath and the air of this latter world, the feathers collapsed, they disintegrated. Imagine this as my former sense of things. The winds that strike me are profound. Unfortunately, I do not seem to have the integrity of a feather. The transformation is a sentence I have earned in my indulgence. I have long been a candle claiming responsibility for the dawn and the dawn is progressing to a sunrise, very shortly all my claims will be revealed as lies. Even I can’t begrudge it.
If you do not know me (whoever should come to read this) I am somewhat well known as an art critic, philosopher, and historian. A profession I was very proud of. It is the poorest of professions. I am neither a historian, nor am I an artist. I tend to think history may be a bit of an error, and I have never made a piece of art (in fact I am only beginning to reckon what art is) in my life. I offer opinions. That is what I do. I use the “halo effect” to advantage. I know names, movements and periods in regard to art. I was once referred to as “the art maven” and this familiar but dismissive title has become too sticky. There are endless papers written in specialist’s language about the propriety and theory of criticism. I have written some of them. I have also written at length on aesthetics and attached myself to various philosophers and antique opinions. Who doesn’t love Descartes and his “cogito?” I believe Dante describes the situation of attachment to aesthetics in the inferno (under the guise of opportunism): “I saw a banner there upon the mist. Circling and circling, it seemed to scorn all pause. So it ran, on and still behind it pressed a never-ending rout of souls in pain.” Of course this can be seen in every movement or philosophy in art- the opportunist's banner whose signs and insignia are every changing. Let me repent anonymously here. I am very well paid for my articles, lectures, even consultation. I considered myself a bridge between the esoteric and exoteric, a translator of the mystical artist to the public. A translator who approved or disapproved of what he was translating. Of course I am educated, I have my proper degrees, but I no longer have the vanity to claim my employment is due to a superior eye or deeper understanding.
That is terrible. It is stupid. “The eye” of the discerning! How superstitious! What nonsense! Croce, perhaps, opened this door. No I won’t assign blame. It is shifty to do so. I am the fool.
Allow me to expand on Shakespeare “In the land of the blind the one eyed are kings.” Consider this, if the land of the blind has no one eyed to be kings, who is left? Would it be unlikely to assume that one or several of the blind might delude themselves into thinking they were seeing, or even suggesting a certain elite “blind sight”? When this “blind sight”, this terrible example of opposites together, is assumed and given a proper language, even an expansive Ptolemaic explanation, is it an error to consider that it is believed? In the land of the blind the blind become kings. Now consider this, these blind become tyrants, fragile tyrants whose reported powers must remain elusive, occult, because examination of their powers will prove they are only blind men. One last consideration: among the blind are born those with full sight, what happens when they appear?
I am a charlatan. I did not believe this at the start. But this is the truth. I am not feeling sorry about this; it seemed like the truth when I flaunted my “blind sight”. If this scenario of the blind is in any way a model of the world of art, then let me answer what becomes of the sighted children when they appear. They are blinded. Somehow, it seems, there are some who evaded this blinding. Those unblinded fugitives have found a cure to our blindness; they developed their own sights that no socket, full or empty, can evade. It is sight, alive, and woe to the blind. This blind man has been administered three real visions, and now my sight is overwhelming me. It is dismissing me.
The first time my eyes opened was at a private showing of a painting.
I have many, many friends and acquaintances. One of my closer and more insistent friends had discovered a new young artist. These discoveries are very important to the aimless and those lacking talent; they believe it implicates them with the arts. It shows they too have the certain sensitivity that makes one an artist, even if they do not produce art they can perceive, and make in a professional sense, artists. As a professional critic I had to deal with such individuals whose wealthy circles tend to include both opportunists and actual artists. These are my clients. I must instruct them as doctrine demands, who is and who isn’t a real artist, who is and who isn’t innovative, what is and what isn’t art. My criteria were, admittedly, strange in retrospect and seem to apply to other matters, such as who is the artist, what was his history, socially what role does he play, what was the deeper sophistic meaning of his work, is he a product of structuralism, anti-structuralism, and importantly for me was his work malleable enough for me to use in my inflated descriptions.
My friend was manic when she called. It was not the usual purring that underlies the poses and cadences one affects when they are being sophisticated; it was breathless and quick speech. I had assumed she had found a new boy toy. These were usually mediocre to bad art students whose feigned moodiness had captured her easy excitement. I was tired of these calls but I owed this friend a great deal, and she knew it. It became implicit in our conversation that this would take care of my debts. I recall I fretted a bit to make the weight of this favor more impressive. The bargaining and haggling in the American social Bazaar is very subtle and filled with complaint. She assented to the leveling of my debts so I agreed to meet her young artist. I would magnanimously give him advice, perhaps gratify myself with an expansive filibuster on art, and then leave as pompously as I arrived.
I was late for our meeting. I had been having dinner with my brother. I was tired and some small degree possessed by the spirits of three martinis. My friend ushered me into her ostentatious apartment. I made brief small talk in her lobby, before she dragged me into her reception area.
It is the usual formula in a meeting to talk to the artist, allow them their say, after which you will view the work, and then analyze or opinionate based on their intentions in comparison with their skills. At some point an invitation to talk just below the surface of the truth is given. I will say something leading, such as: “What would you like to do with your art?” This is an invitation to discreetly discuss one’s greed and ambition. It allows me a chance to sense their chances of success, in the rather brutal but grinning world of art. After which I remain noncommittal pointing out strengths and vices in the arts. It is generally the case in a private meeting to refer to the “art world” as an outside entity, a tyrant, whereas in a crowd, with plenty of shielding you can make elaborate rude commentary on behalf of the “art world”. I was preparing to offer my private treasons and excuses in their usual form.
I was never given the chance to mount my bench. I was marched in front of the painting directly. (See painting in photo section).
It was not a large painting, perhaps 36”x 30”. At first it appeared to be a young girl. I recall he later said she was supposed to be Sudanese. She was wrapped in a wrinkled hood. The background showed an angry, stormy red sky over jagged hills. It was like the aftermath of a great fire. It was well painted, nicely composed: skillful. I was pleasantly surprised. I remember thinking this artist may be worth consideration.
My gaze shifted slightly as I was making to turn and address the artist whose presence had been on my periphery since I entered the room. It was then the painted girl moved.
Allow me to clarify. I had been looking at her from about a foot away. Her expression was placid. It appeared the eyes were painted to be unusually penetrating, but her expression was calm. When my eyes moved a fraction, and her expression changed. The face became tinged with anger. It seemed to glare. I stared back at the painting and the girl’s face changed again: she smiled subtly. I could feel my breath become short and unsteady; my heart beat rapidly and I began to perspire. Such was my physical response, mentally I felt as if suddenly I discovered I had been dreaming, I even tried to rouse myself. A wave of panic and exaggerated emotion crept behind my eyes. I wanted to weep or laugh hysterically, but I could do neither. I just teetered suspended on the precipice of that moment waiting. What I was waiting for was very clear, I was waiting for more. I was not disappointed. The more I stared the more the painting transformed. The face became placid again but then the clouds began to move, and ghost faces mingled in the yellow hood around her head. Again her face called my attention. Her features became clouded and indistinct. Within that cloud a muddy checkerboard pattern emerged. I sought to regain her face with surprising urgency. I felt security in her face in comparison with that muddy pattern. That pattern seemed wrong, wrong as only a dream or hallucination can seem wrong. I hunted for her face and was met with more than I could bear. Abruptly the face reemerged, but it was not just her face. It became a Proteus of faces which my mind chased. Faces replaced that one face, and no feature settled. Her features recombined and displayed an ever changing population staring from beneath her yellow hood.
I was terrified and amazed. How long the painting and I stared at one another I cannot write and is perhaps irrelevant. I suspect it would not have ever ended. Its transformations would never cease, and I began to wonder if the painting wasn’t an oracle or clock showing all faces that were, are, and will be. I stepped away in sudden panic realizing the painting might become a mirror. Looking back I should have wondered something more troubling: those faces were not, are not, and will never be. I may have been looking at impossible people. Their only life was granted by my eyes and my breath and their potential population was infinite. Eventually the artist spoke: “Did you warn him about the painting?”
I stumbled backward staring around the painting, still very tempted to look at it. Finally, I murmured, “What? What does that mean?” My sense of alarm was rising. “Have I been drugged?”
My friend laughed, she grabbed my arm comfortably and led me to the sofa. “No, no, of course not, I haven’t done that to anyone in years.” That bland joke, attempting to hint at some false daring or previous mischief, helped me back to myself. It was the language of deluded exchange in our finite world; it was a petty, banal (effective), effort to belittle the experience of the painting. I needed ground and that joke, which was all such a cliché of naughtiness, provided it. How foolish of me to confuse the ground with hot air.
“Isn’t Aaron’s painting fabulous? He claims it doesn’t ever stop, not even when you look away. Isn’t that right Aaron? Aaron please introduce yourself!” My friend was giddy. I could feel giddiness rise in myself. I wanted to praise the young man; I wanted to talk to him. But my fears had not subsided. I am aware that people who are the victims of insult will try to align themselves with those who have insulted them, they will toady and placate and feign secret understandings with their oppressor. This is because contempt is contagious and the insulted do not wish to incur the insults of the several who may be witnesses. I had the unmistakable urge to toady. Believing what I believed I constructed a suit of arrogance for the young artist, I assumed in some yet undetected way I had suffered insult. I quickly defended against a strike that was never administered. I believed he was attempting to better me. I became cold and smug.The young man did introduce himself. He also elaborated on his warning. “It isn’t that the painting won’t stop, it becomes epidemic in the Dionysian sense. It is a divine infection. I asked Marcel to warn you before you looked.” Art is filled with snake oil salesman. Artist statements are full of false claims and polysyllabic words, self aggrandizement, and mysticism. I immediately assigned this young man’s statement to these categories. I was dismissive. I spoke to him with disinterest and vanity. This was a mistake I am willing to admit here. “Aaron” was not a stereotypical artist, nor was he a typical artist. He was very well kempt, calm but quickly interested, and free of melodrama. He was a normal man. He did not wear his eccentricities on his sleeve, nor did he otherwise flaunt them. I could ignore him in a crowd of three. This does not mean he was without mystery. He exuded mystery. It was clear upon first glance his mysterious qualities were difficult, well maintained, and honestly, too much work to penetrate. This reckoning of mystery as normality was more generous and apt then I could claim to have made before I saw his painting. It was an infection. What I had assumed was artistic bragging was, in fact, a clear statement. Having been a liar and dealt with liars for so long, I assumed it was the rule of statements. I was wrong.
Feeling bested, although not admitting it, I later read up on Dionysian “epidemics”. I would use this trivia as a tool to later impress should I meet Aaron again. I would attempt to refute his claims. Being a historian, even of art, I was very familiar with Dionysos, through viewing Renaissance paintings, through reading Nietzsche, and I had also examined vases and other work attendant to this Greek god. I am by no means an expert. Of course, I considered him in the sense portrayed by Nietzsche, or painted by Caravaggio, or DaVinci. This god was a symbol or an emblem. The “epidemic” description was something different. By the time I learned of it, the epidemic was being felt and I could not refute it. An epidemia was an “arrival on the land” or to “be upon the people”, otherwise called an epiphany- a manifestation. It referred to Dionysus’s arrival and the spread of madness before him. He was the infectious god.
Aaron was claiming his painting to be a germ of madness, or divinity. I must admit while I stared at it, that is how it seemed, but I did not account for its more subtle powers after had I left its presence. It takes time to understand the infestation of madness. It seems so familiar, so close, so unbelievable, and so far, all at once, ignorance seems preferable. Dismissal is the hope tried by all who are over come. Like a child with blankets over his head warding off the forces menacing him, I tried to blind myself to what had been awakened. I even wished to scoff. It was somehow galling to peripherally notice it was my subject and slave, Art, which had quickened the madness. I could not scoff as it was, even then, even through my denial, it was true: he had induced a divine infection.
Although he was a pleasant enough young man, something disturbed me. And as I’m sure, Dear Reader, you will sympathize I assumed he was the source of disturbance. I did not assume I had been given the first dose of self disgust, I assumed he was disturbing. I was a king among kings, a being of free will; I had seen it all and was trusted for my opinions of all of it. When not adequately self assured I could reach back and rely on venerable tradition, greater authority, on which I could depend. But this intruder had dismissed it all, seemingly without even being aware of it. It is difficult to be magnanimous with a mouth full of manure.
In such a deliberately intimate, enclosed, room I had little to say or do. I could not lose myself in bookshelves, or foreign ornaments. The room was barren and so one could discuss art without distraction. The best I could do was maintain a smirk and pretended to be jaded. Though somewhat hysterical my friend was an astute woman. By the look in her eye I knew she was aware of my discomfort; she knew I was overwhelmed. Not that it was hard to notice, my clothes were soaked with sweat.
They spoke amiably of several subjects, sometimes art but not conspicuously. I remained aloof, acting as if I were listening. I must confess Aaron was a very nice and subdued fellow. But I would not bow to him. In Caravaggio’s day, artists, even friends, would pass in the streets without acknowledging the other, without “raising their hats”. It was a sign of power, a submission to those above, to lift your hat first. Friends did not speak for years waiting for a hat to be tipped their way. I was behaving in this fashion. The truth is it was my desire to tip my hat but I was immersed in habitual games of position and could not guess when it might be time to be humble, even when I was humbled.
It is still a question in my mind: did I like the painting? Where can I start? What criteria do I use? The painting, as far as technique is concerned was good enough, but the paint was apparently, meant to be dismissed. The pigments were truly a “medium” a bridge to some other device. What was I to gauge? Was it art? Not in the terms I was taught. But what was it? This was some time ago, and I have gone out of my way, to avoid the young man, though he has twice crossed my path.
I have seen another work since that evening. It seemed to carry the same epidemia as the portrait. Thinking on this next work makes me hesitate, for it was desirable. I wish for more of the work. That probably doesn’t clarify the sentiment, or give it enough thrust. I am well aware of how melodrama has become the relay of sentiment in writing and speech. It is repulsively telling how removed we are from the living. I saw the next work I will describe in a gallery. Looking back it couldn’t have been placed in a worse setting.
My wife and I were invited to a not-so-intimate intimate gathering of artsy friends in Seattle. The invitation was extended by my good friend, Martin. Martin is a respected collector, with unusually fashionable taste. His collections toured very widely in Europe, and rarely in America. His pieces are select. Only the best and most lucrative are gathered to his collections.When the invitation arrived, we excused ourselves from any other engagements, and made arrangements to attend Martin’s soiree. This was certain to be a gala event. The invitation, which I have saved as a souvenir (and have committed to memory in pathetically religious adoration) read:
Dear Friends,Please make yourselves available for a truly profound viewing experience Sept. 15, ----. What you will witness will forever change your perspectives. Please R.S.V.P at the attached address no later than Sept. 2 Marty
It would be a habit for me to write in a smug tone about how I craved for social attention and the deferred opinions of the vulgar. Art venues have a very wicked habit of luring the vulnerable to pettiness and pretense. I did not care about art. Art as I look back was an opportunity to not only point out the emperor was naked, but to point it out while I was naked. I was not insincere when I thought I was an art lover, I just mistook what art was. The above opportunity to "change my perspectives" seemed like a beacon to either debunk an upstart, or attach myself to new and improved art. Which ever the situation, I would need to get some prior information. My persona would need preparation. I would like to clarify; this bogus persona was not perpetual. I was normal and good with friends-friends with little interest in art. It was professional. It was going to work, and loving my job which was, admittedly, to promote vanity, it was to create a false demeanor.
Gathering information was not easy. No one knew anything. Martin, much like the rest of the certified professionals in our society, was (I was going to write gregarious but as this is a confession of sorts let's be a bit more frank) a loud mouth. Bragging is part of the reward in art. Rarety and who owns what is most rare needs gossips, and deliberate information leaks. This is very profitable. Most people know this advertising tactic through tabloid news on Hollywood celebrities. Auction houses and private collectors use these same tactics, but in a more elitist setting. So you can imagine how strange it was that nothing was leaked. The usual channels of information were untrafficked. The only thing that was offered and this so generally it was believable, was that Marty had not seemed himself in the last few months. By report he seemed nervous, or under stress. He had lost some weight, he was distant. This up coming opening was beginning to ring alarm bells. It was not advertised in any journal or art periodical. It had not been previewed to critics, or reporters, it was by invitation only, which is not the most successful marketing stratagem. What is more I had had the unenviable experience of touring the gallery where the opening was going to be held. It was a smaller venue, usually dealing in reproductions and decorative art, that is, "schlock." The crowd would not be a very large one.
Just before the opening some word leaked out, unreliable word I should add, that Martin had invested a huge sum of money in the artist and the subsequent marketing of the artists work. It was intimated it would be very unusual.
September 15th arrived, and our anticipation was to be sated. We had no idea how much so. I was prepared, so I thought for every variable. If it was good, bad, or other, I was ready. I had dozens of things to say. I researched regarding every rumor and hint (sparse as they were). I suspected the oddity of this event would attract the most important of my peers. I was not going to be unprepared.
When we arrived, formally dressed and hungry, my wife and I were quickly greeted and ushered in the front door. It was somewhat ominous. The gallery was closed. I usually expect the milling and socializing of the cultured spilling out into the streets at an opening event. Cocktails (once literally a cocktail with the feather in it) and exotic snacks with various French and Italian (even Russian lately) names could be expected. But we were ushered like fugitives in the underground to the back offices and then to the door of the basement. There were several people already waiting and clearly annoyed. I did not know anyone, and what is worse, they were dressed very casually. We seemed like caricatures of a 1920’s fat cat and his wife. It struck me then, very forcefully, this was not going to be about me, unless of course I made an ass of myself.
More people entered, until two rooms were filled in only security lighting. Someone made an inappropriate joke relating our circumstance to that of victims of the Nazis in a boxcar. This was offensive for many obvious reasons, but was also jarring because it voiced a certain quiet fear that some dangerous trick had been pulled. Very quickly, when expectation is not met, small but strong paranoia can appear. We were very relieved when the basement door was opened and no Panzers stormed out. An 18 year old usher in a red vest was all that emerged. She didn’t say anything just smiled a self conscious, but not bashful smile, and waved us in.
The basement was very spacious, and a longer descent than I had expected (for some reason I was thinking of the basement stairs of a duplex I rented when I was 23.) I was a bit heavier then and I could feel 40 pounds of luxury bouncing and jouncing stair by stair restrained only by tuxedo. This seemed another demerit from my dignity. At the bottom three sets of risers, like those used in elementary school chorus recitals, were set up in an arc before a white curtained wall. There were only two spot lights directed at the curtain as illumination for the room, but they were sufficient.
After asking the usher, someone courteously called out “stadium seating”, and everyone gave a forced chuckle. My wife and I sat together, a pair of sore thumbs. I was very conscious of my dress and becoming more so by the minute. This tell seemed to be broadcasting. My clothes were accidentally revealing more of my pretence than I could have dreamed. I was an imposter, but regarding what? My wife, I should add, was only momentarily embarrassed, and then preceded about her business. She is far less an imposter.
The seating ended up elbow to elbow, not very comfortable, I assure you. Those risers were not cushioned, and before all was said and done I became very aware of the bones in my buttocks.Finally Martin entered the room, and made his way before the curtain. He was followed by a very tall lanky fellow. This new man seemed entirely made of elbows. Martin looked well, healthy, even strong. He was dressed in a casual jacket and jeans, and seemed very excited. He was expectant, and assured, I could not help but forget my silly clothes. Something was really going to happen. My instincts flared and I became excited as if by contagion. This was not going to be hype or a prank.
Martin made speeches before everything. To get a glass of water Martin would ask for silence in a room and describe how important water was to one and all. For this brief moment he seemed reluctant. He said, after uncharacteristic stammering, “Dear friends, thank you so much for coming to this unusual event. You may be questioning the wisdom of the choice to attend, as rough as it is. Regretfully I can’t tell you much about what is to come, I mean both here and after you go to your warm homes. You won’t see anything quite like this again. It is a shame, and also a blessing. You will not believe what will happen when this curtain is parted. So without further indulgences, let me present the artist, Mr. David _____.”
The tall man of elbows awkwardly made his way to the front of the curtain. I was expecting a self referential speech describing the validity of his work, first through art history than some anti-classical pinnacle. At least, I thought this in part, the excitement had not waned to fully accept this idea.
In his right hand he held the handle on a plastic box. A lens peered out amid the usual swirls of design that accompany up to the minute electronic appliances. He did not speak, he gestured and said a half word to the two young men controlling the lights. “Wait!” this sharp bark made all of us jump. The artist made an earnest face as he adjusted his plastic device. He smiled up at us blushing, I believe, “That wouldn’t have created a very good performance if I made you all blind.” I became uneasy. For a brief moment with the Sudanese girl, I thought I was going blind.
The lights went out, and the tall man turned on his plastic box, what I first thought was a portable projector, but I do not think this now. For a moment I feared I was about to endure a performance piece. The curtains were pulled aside and what appeared behind it, revealed by the indirect light of the box was blank wall.
“If you all direct your attention to the center of the beam of light” which he promptly directed to the blank wall, “I would like to begin my tale.”
In the center beam of light, isolated, an island of vision surrounded by the geometric lightening provided by our eyes, was a painting. In a moment I will change the form of narrative, as it will better relate what was seen, but for a moment let me describe something jarring. The light was not a projector. The light from the beam was slightly shaky as it was hand held. The painting did not shake. What is more, the painting seemed to spread out in the shaky perimeter. It was something about the nature of the light on the surface of the wall that revealed the painting. As we would later watch his small spotlight travel and unravel his illustrated narrative we realized not only was he traveling this broad surface and using his light to reveal an enormously elaborate painting, but he retread portions and a new painting was revealed where another had been.
I will here switch to 3rd person and try to tell the story we heard it, including descriptions of the illustrations as it was seamless whole.
“Before the Hejira and after the age of the Jamshid who’s starry cup witnessed Kai Khosrau there was a war. Some have said the war was in Khurasan and its hero was Idris, other say it was in Meshed and was at the command of Shab. The tale has been abandoned to whispers and obscure scripts. All the accounts, however, agree it was Shachar the Sabian that secured the victory.”
“Of Shachar I will tell only the end of this war for that is when his wisdom was miraculously revealed. Shachar sat in despair, alone in a field.” Again, this is a combination of the spoken narrative and the paintings as it was slowly revealed. “The war gear of his men were scattered around him. Their final camp site was abandoned litter. Insects claimed the abandoned war prizes, now abused and filthy. Shachar sat still and tired. His once handsome face was leather stretched taut against sharp bones and hollows. The face that was once harsh and proud had been broken by privation, duration, and loss.”
“A short time before he sat Shachar had sent the closest of his lieutenants from him. He released them to try as they may to escape punishment. The war was lost. They would find little left of their villages, or families. The reward for their struggles and loyalty to him would be mourning.”
“On the perimeter of the field the arms of the embracing forest shielded Shachar form sights and sounds not far away. Just beyond the eastern arm of the forest waited Belchir Ibn Melchir and his legions. These armies knew fresh infantry, a sea of foot soldiers all armored and spiny with weapons, generals and the young princes, sons of Belchir Ibn Melchir, eunuchs and servants attended, the priests were there, and the diplomats. They were preparing for a feast day.”
“Belchir Ibn Melchir had sent envois to Shachar’s camp giving detailed instruction for the rites of surrender. Shachar sent back his reply. At the first break of sunlight the following dawn Shachar would present himself to Belchir Ibn Melchir and meet his fate. He would arrive alone, unarmed, standing upright. Belchir Ibn Melchir received the news with satisfaction.”
“Shachar waited in the field, stark and empty, as the sun slipped below the horizon. There Shachar waited, hoping for the sound of birds, or beast. No song from the Archons would be his servitor. He abandoned the hope the angels would deliver him, but perhaps he would receive some comfort from them yet. In bodies of light they mapped the sky. As he had come from dust, so would he return to dust, and the stars would witness this without surprise. In a language he did not know his story too, was written in the heavens. He ran his hand through the dust at his feet and wondered upon which heads he had strode. He thought it likely the dust beneath his feet had once sported crowns, but here it was brought low, hidden under grass and ferns. That field was surely a looking glass that told him the one certain future. “Dust unto dust and under dust to lie, sans wine, sans song, sans singer, and sans end…’”
“He brought his dusty hand before his face, looking at his kin, and he was curious regarding an old question.”
“The sun was nearly gone. The forest could not hide the armies further. The smells of campfires and cooking met Shachar’s nose, and the sky behind the trees glowed. Shachar had not eaten in days, and his head ached from hunger, and his belly turned. He felt slightly sick, but too drained to give this suffering its due.”
“Shachar stood to draw in air, to ease his belly with memories of food. He was met with the stir of his own filth and sweat. He patted himself and clouds of dust poured from him, while his clothes cracked under his blows. He was disgusted by his filth. He became angry with the protuberance of his knobby bones.”
“Flowing not far within the confines of the field was a small but deep stream. Shachar ambled to it with bony angularity, like a door frame under an enchantment to move. He painfully disrobed, and set about bathing. Tomorrow he would transform to dust, but for now he was a man, and water was welcome on his beaten, scarred clay. He would not face Belchir Ibn Melchir clothed in fugitive’s grime.”
“He soaked in the water for a time. His mind was surprisingly free, but also very aware of time. He wished for better moments of ease. He brought his hands to his face, rubbed his eyes, wrung his beard. His pale hands were visible in the star light. In ways they were nebulous, insubstantial, indistinct. He brought his hands close to his eyes, then held them far and said aloud, ‘Perhaps this is their truth.’ To himself he thought, tomorrow if Belchir Ibn Melchir follows custom I will ask this question.”
“He dried in the warm night air. He dried his poorly washed clothes like spinning swords in the old martial exercises. He had difficulty pulling his clothes back on as they were still damp.”“He ate nothing, he had no fire, he did not sleep, he only had the stars. He watched them spin, the fixed and the wandering. They marked time but largely ignored time. Their dance was the concern of men it did not trouble the stars themselves."
"As a boy, he had gone on pilgrimage with his father. They traveled to the Pyramids in Egypt. His father told him stars are not time, but describe time. In those distant fires were maps of all their temples. Those angels were the places of memory, and the visions of their idols, the entire story of man.”
“He believed these stories, but could not discern the memories of his home or temples in those far lights. He wished to take asylum. He would go to Egypt again, he would follow the Milky Way and it would lead him to Troy, or Rome, or Harran. There were so many stars but too many letters for a man to read.”
“The night passed cold and slow. Shachar spent much of the night with his arms up stretched to the sky, watching the silhouette of his hands.”
“Blue tinged the vault of heaven and the stars eased their labors. All but one. The morning star seemed flared and defiant. Sitting close to the horizon it retained resplendence. The sky brightened, and the star remained. Shachar used the star as his beacons he tromped through the grassy field and then the dim forest, to meet his end.”
“He emerged from the forest at the proper moment, for the sun just settled on the tips of the tallest trees. Shachar lost his breath at the expansive vision of war before him. Belchir Ibn Melchir’s legions flowed out before him. Their aim and attention dropped fully upon him. His hoped finally melted away. Standing at the forefront of the armies was Belchir Ibn Melchir. He was on horseback, his head high. Belchir Ibn Melchir was rotund and oiled, clothed in jewels and ceremonial armor. Behind him stood generals, advisors, his thirty sons, and behind them were innumerable men regimented behind flags and totemic insignia. A forest of spears and swords were raised in triumph, and a great roar erupted from all throats excluding Belchir Ibn Melchir. Shachar nearly collapsed.”
“Belchir Ibn Melchir languidly raised his hand and silence descended. Shachar swallowed very hard. A rough swallow. He straightened and stood as if his body remembered pride. He sent his gaze to meet Belchir Ibn Melchir.”
“’Shachar! For you folly will end here, for it is here you will be finally counted wise and sound. For here you have surrendered to the hands of fate. You were as a sheep before the lion, and it is futile for the sheep to struggle so, for God has made them both, and made the lion supreme. But I am more fierce than the lion!’ Belchir savored the sound of his words and spoke them heavily with great gestures. ‘I am also more merciful. Shachar you will not be made an example, for you have many qualities I admire. I will not allow you to be tortured. Your death will be the death of a man, though you now look an animal. Come forward, let my armies see you. We will then take you into custody and execute you, without delay.’ Belchir smiled widely, almost like a spoiled boy.”
“Shachar paused before he replied. ‘Belchir Ibn Melchir. I submit you have triumphed in this war. I agree I am defeated. You have not asked that I bow to you or your generals or armies, and for this I am grateful. Let it never be said Belchir Ibn Melchir is an Emperor without courtesy. Let it never be said Belchir Ibn Melchir does not observe the old traditions and piety. You are the victor and I am the dead. But I would ask one thing of you, and this has been the way of victors for all time. Will you observe the final request of the vanquished?’”
“Belchir Ibn Melchir seemed to have expected this and so grinned. “Shachar, you know these requests have conditions, they are not absolute. I will grant your request as long as it does no harm to me, or my own, and as long as it does not interfere with my more extensive wishes.’”
“’Belchir Ibn Melchir, I do not ask any demands, or reprieve. My request is far more humble than this. My final request is the answer to a question. It is a question of philosophical import.’”
“Belchir Ibn Melchir seemed pleasantly puzzled by this request. His fat thick brows rose high above his wide nose. He laughed a roaring, scornful laugh. ‘Of course, Shachar, I will grant you this. What is your question?’”“’What is the true size of my hand?’”
“Belchir Ibn Melchir laughed so hard he wheezed. His legions attempted laughter in sympathy. He lifted a fatty hand and pointed at Shachar, ‘Measure his hand!’”
“Shachar held up his own hand, ‘No, Belchir Ibn Melchir! That will not answer my question.’ Shachar’s hand was held high and he slowly displayed it to the legions. ‘Consider: when you bring your hand close to your eye it looks large. When you pull your hand away it seems to diminish. Children know this. But I would like to know, as my eyes will not tell me, what is the size of my hand?’”
“Belchir Ibn Melchir’s mouth hung slack. He turned his head with difficulty and looked to his advisors stupefied. His face immediately soured. He roughly ordered a eunuch forward, this was one of his philosophers and advisors. The eunuch bowed, and trotted to stand behind Belchir Ibn Melchir’s horse.”
“’Shachar, the answer to your question is known to me, but it is a small thing! It is beneath my majesty to address a child’s question! But I have granted your request, and so it shall be answered!’ He kicked the eunuch forward. ‘This one will answer your question!’” Belchir Ibn Melchir seemed unduly troubled by his inability to answer such a strange question. Perhaps that mighty army, those wolfish generals, the serpentine sons were not as tightly bound as they appeared. Was that a shadow of unease that darkened Belchir Ibn Melchir’s face?”
“The eunuch seemed very nervous, but he quickly built a long toothed smile. ‘The answer to your question is: your hand is the same size.’ He bowed and began to back away. Belchir Ibn Melchir smiled.”
“Shachar also smiled a sympathetic smile and shook his head in negation. ‘Still you have not answered my question. It is, of course, the same size as itself. This does not answer my question, for it still remains, what is the size of itself? And again, what is the size of my hand?’ Belchir Ibn Melchir, you have given your word, here, before the strength of your armies, to answer my request. Are you unable to grant this? Is this not a disgrace? After all of our violence am I to topple you, and the wits of your ministers and vast armies, with a child’s question. Was this the vulnerability I should have exploited, and stood where you now stand, our positions reversed?’”“Belchir Ibn Melchir shook with rage. He called the eunuch to his side, drew his scimitar, and with a great ponderous swing, cut the eunuchs head from his shoulders. He roughly turned his horse, nearly toppling the animal, and approached his son’s, his generals and his ministers. He held the bloodied scimitar before them. He could taste their rising scorn, their doubts and he knew to crush them with fear, for if he did not the day may rapidly change the balance of power. Murder was very close to the minds of his court-it was their gift, but it must not be turned against him. Belchir Ibn Melchir growled low as he passed in front of his court.
‘Do not look at me with blood in your eyes! You dare! Wipe your chops, there is no prey here! You are my prey! You are mine! And so I deem to pass the burden to you! The answer to this question will be found before the noonday sun or I will take the heads and hands of all of you!’ Belchir Ibn Melchir called forth his personal guard and ordered them to stand weapons drawn man to man with each of his generals, sons, and ministers. As one the leaders of the army called forth messengers. These messengers were dispatched with the question to each captain, who then relayed the question down the lines of command until each soldier heard.”
“Shachar became dizzy with a wave of hunger. His head ached, and his eyes watered. He had said all he would to another man on this day.”
“Shachar squeezed his eyes shut until the dizziness passed. The world was amazingly silent. When he opened his eyes, his vision took in a nearly comical sight. All the advisors, all the sages, and warriors, every last man in the vast army stood waving there hands forward and back before their eyes. Every face was quizzical and uncertain.”
“The hours passed and the sun rose. Sweat poured from every brow, not from overwhelming heat, but under the burden or death. The swaying hands did not cease, but varied in speed and angle. Sometimes they would cease moving only to begin again with greater confusion. Even Belchir Ibn Melchir stared at his hand.”
“It seemed a spell was cast. The legions of faces had lost their liveliness. The armies of hands were becoming still. Like the cessation of disturbance in a pool, the actions of the armies slowed. It seemed a trance was falling. Shachar looked up at the sky. It was far from the noon hour.”
I must now return to my narrative to describe the rest. The painting which had unfolded with the traveling light became slightly obscured. It seemed to take on blotches of absence- scotomas. If you suffer migraines you will understand what I mean.
Sight by sight the light exposed the perspective of different soldiers. It seemed as though we blinked, and it took on a new perspective every few seconds. Each time an eye opened a hand appeared in its center and behind, at various points of view stood Shachar. Hands of different shapes and characters popped in and out of our vision, making Shachar the magnetic constant in this parade of perspectives. Shachar was near and then far, but most impressively, he changed under the point of view and social biases of each soldier. He was Shachar in some general way, and in no way a caricature, but some feature in each changing view became emphatic. The transformations that changed Shachar were amazing. In one soldiers eye his tattered clothes became emphatic, in another his starvation, in another he seemed proud, in another he seemed filthy and small. We were given peripheral observations of a man as seen by many men, and it was done with subtlety. It seemed natural. We were allowed to see through the eyes of others to read fear and power of other men-impossible men who did not exist. After a short time it seemed these myriad Shachars were building a composite, a truth, as if we these sights were building the first vision of something ideal. An absolute Shachar seemed to be under construction.
These perceptions were becoming deeply marred with the blotches of absence. Just as something seemed to be entering clarity it was being obscured. For a few moments I thought I was beginning to have a migraine, the effect was so convincing.
The armies continued to look at their hands. The narrative had paused for a moment. The light did not cease to travel the wall, as if imitating our eyes, seeking out something to see. But it could find less and less. And I became somewhat nervous because I was unsure if it was the work or my vision. This kind of suspension is very uncomfortable. It is an unpleasant intellectual rebellion.
The artist continued: “After a time Shachar began to understand the stillness of the army. Still with little hope, but more days and adventures before him, Shachar stumbled away from the still army. After he had walked some short distance, he heard the first howls and cries that initiated a mass panic.” He granted us the illustrative perspective of Shachar, and interspersed this with the blotchy perspective of the mass. “The armies of Belchir Ibn Melchir, including Belchir Ibn Melchir had all fallen into an abstraction. They were tricked into regarding the deceptive nature of vision. They held a mirror to sight. They were lulled to answer one of the forbidden questions. They....” my eyes hurt and seemed to involuntarily cross looking for sight, “…all …” the images were fading even when Shachar was shown, “…went…” suddenly the absence took over and I could not see, I reached out for my wife, “blind.” Had I noticed, and not been ready to panic, everyone gasped and became utterly silent. The spot lights flicked on again.The lanky artist stood before us satisfied and smiling. Behind him the wall was completely blank. We all looked around to ensure our vision, even stupidly measuring our hands.Martin was up in front of the room giddy and gesturing for us to proceed up stairs. Everyone laughed. Like we just stepped off a roller coaster, everyone was tussled. We must have been squirming in our seats, though I must admit, I did not notice any such fidgeting. Someone tried to start applause but, it fell dead. Applause seemed a little inadequate. We may as well have set up barking like seals.
We were escorted upstairs to the main gallery by ushers, and it was then some wine and cheese were served. The artist appeared like some figure from Oz, all sticks and pulleys. Vivaldi was playing, people were milling, but in an unnerving silence. We were all still trapped in that world. We were still with Shachar. After a time a crowd gathered around David and everyone managed to overcome their awe, and sense of awkwardness to ask questions. The evening decayed from there.
I did learn some interesting details, by listening to the questions thrown at the artist. It was his first piece. It was not for sale. It had taken him 12 years to create. After a short time the crowd broke into pairs and the theories began to assemble regarding the plastic box. That is was a projector was one theory, another was that box was a flashlight of sorts, but with various colored lights that reflected or were absorbed, and these lights revolved. I thought these were unsatisfactory ideas, and still do. Too many aspects of the work are left unanswered. And although it is intriguing, I think in the end it is not my concern how he did what he did, but more importantly what did he do? He erased us all. I was not me for a time. I jumped body to body, a ghost. We became swept up in the senses of another, in the sights of other eyes, and for a time we were whatever identity he provided. We were, briefly but with lingering aspects, Shachar, Belchir Ibn Melchir, the sons, the army, other men. But what will not dissipate is the variable Shachar; the multiple visions of Shachar that nearly gave us an ideal, an eternal experience.
I had to leave. Somehow normal people were too bland to endure. Shachar was more real. They seemed less effected by the work than I was, and it felt offensive. I began to feel with some certainly the first feeling of disconnection.
The populations of the impossible never people that radiated from the Abyssinian girl, the shifting characters of painted fiction presented in the story of Shachar that I had just seen (that I had just been) seemed to hint at a depth behind the easy surface of sense. If the universe we inhabit is infinite, this other thing, an impossible universe, is more. ! squared or ! to the ! power. It is participating with shadows, only these shadows are more substantial than granite. Illusions seem to describe the bedrock of truth. Reality, at its best, is incomplete. My sense is these works describe a fact: we are illusions to something more startling. It almost seems like a form of solipsism, or a taste of the Hegelian Absolute.
I complained I was feeling slightly ill so we left the reception. On the ride home we attempted to discuss the work, but my wife became nervous and evasive. It felt like we were trying to discuss something shameful or intrusive, or a violation. I cannot explain this.
There was one further piece I would like to mention. And though I am suspicious of threes for the superstitions surrounding this number, it does feel like there is some uncanny relationship between the pieces.
I was at a funeral. I should mention I am, as is normal I believe, deeply troubled by funerals. Perhaps this is old fashioned of me. They seem due homage. Mourning seems like a properly lonely state, and is honored by reluctance to approach. But the world is has truly become a farce or is it still in the tragic stages? I’ll let Marx or Hegel worry over this. This funeral was a “celebration of life” or so the flyers reported. Flyers for a funeral. It boggles the mind. I am disgusted with the idea of a funeral as a celebration. It is morbid, like a clown face painted on a corpse. If life has been good and gracious, virtuous or honorable, its passing will be terrible for a light is gone. Maybe I am being sentimental, but this seems a decent enough sentiment and I won’t lightly throw it aside. Life should be celebrated as it is lived (or condemned). These should occur during our brief span. Post mortem gaiety seems like a really tacky excuse to have a party, or a show put on for an audience of fellow mourners. It is pathetic the dead can become a platform for attention and vapidity. Leave the dead some dignity!
I write with vehemence about this for a reason. The dead man at the funeral meant little to anyone (myself included). That may be cold to write, but it is true, nonetheless. In most circumstances I would have performed as is expected and acted sorrowful, but I had run out. My sense of doubt had matured into self disgust and disgust for all things like me in my isolated field. When you first catch on to the fraud, the first whiff of your own weakness and pretense, it is the most profoundly irritating experience. When I had first been willing to scorn the pieces of art I have here described I was so solid, and knew all of the rituals and acts around me to be real, but after it seemed the worst farce.
We stood around the coffin as it was being lowered, and everyone chatted. Martinis were passed around. It was a monstrous coffin. As if ironic or a joke, it was covered in tinsel and garlands and hundreds of bottle caps. It looked like it was dressed as a gypsy for Halloween. I felt my face scrunched in disgust, and I could not unknot it. In this well manicured graveyard, silent and still, even solemn, we stood out like a glittering pimple. It was like watching the most desperately resentful teenagers crying out for attention. Each mourner was talking and laughing a little louder than their neighbor. One man wore a Technicolor kilt, another man was in flamboyant drag (can’t drag sometimes be subdued?) One woman dressed like she was just arrived from a swingers convention, all in holey fishnet and mesh, and I assure you she was not someone you want to see in fishnet and mesh with holes. This display of scandal might be forgivable if this was teenagers, or even twenty three year olds. But our youngest mourner was 38, our eldest was in his early seventies. This was all false.
In a moment I realized I did not want to stay and would not stay. In mid sentence I strode away from some shrill harpy and set off across the graveyard. It was Scrooge like, after seeing such cold self interest I suddenly had the urge to sense some human feeling. My head felt swollen and my eyes ached. People of a class and culture whom I had striven to join were transforming before my eyes. They were like the frightening puppets on Mr. Rogers. Every face had some “Lady Elaine” quality, or the worst of Venetian Carnival masks, elongated and heavily accented with makeup and paint and shiny grease. They were spangled monsters, twisted people. Perhaps this is all subjective, or perhaps they were cells wracked with disease. I was having the godfather of anxiety attacks.
I was jarred into some reality, or some more calm state, by a simple sight. People. Real people, plain, dull, people. It occurred to me the funeral was unpeopled, a bunch of empty coats. The mourners were behaving in some alien manner and it was very lonely. When you are in a crowd of empty men you suffer the effects of isolation, and possibly sensory deprivation. These real people were not here for my entertainment, nor did they petition me to act as audience. They were solid. They had concerns out in the world. A young man stood beside an old man who knelt, both apparently paying respects at a grave. The young man looked somewhat bored and disinterested, but there was also some sense of warding. His young face squinted and searched passively. He was here for the old man, it was apparent. The old man was hunched forward, sitting on his knees. He was concentrating on something.
They were straight ahead of me, so I kept on my way, and was prepared to quickly sneak a gaze at whatever was happening then leave them in peace as I went to find my car.
The old man was drawing on a small tablet. The young man, and this may be generous, he looked about 16, watched me walk up with some interest. The old man did not shift a hair as I passed.
I had to catch a glimpse of what he was drawing. This was unusual and my instincts informed me to keep alert. Something about this moment seemed portentous, and far more “magical” than anything they had attempted at the sham funeral.
I paused and looked over the man’s shoulder from a respectful distance. The drawing was beautifully done and very simple. It was a portrait of a young woman, face front, neither beautiful nor ugly. He was drawing in pastels on what looked like an old Fisher Price child’s chalkboard.
I spoke quietly to the young man. “I’m sorry, very sorry to bother you, but may I ask what your father is drawing?”
The young man looked away with disinterest while he spoke, as if the act of communicating made me safe, or he had sized me up and I was not worth barring. “He’s my Grandpa. He does this every week. He makes me bring him here on Sundays. This is my Nana’s grave and he’s a sketch artist. He draws her.”
I looked over the old man’s shoulder again, and saw he clutched a tattered black and white photograph of the girl in the hand that clutched the chalkboard. The drawing was far more lively than the photo.
In art you often hear hyperbole regarding the effects of a work. Everyone attributes some voodoo and magical other worldliness to simple drawings. It validates them (both work and observer) in some petty way. I am aware of this and I would like to communicate I am not suggesting this silly superstitious pose when I say the work was better than the photograph. The color would lend “betterment” if nothing else. But there was more than just the addition of color to quicken the picture. The face was different, it resembled the photo but was not the same, and the difference was subtle, more expressive. Certain of the facial muscles were flexed that lent a “telling” quality to the face.
“Again, I’m sorry, but do you think your grandfather would mind if I watch him draw? I am very interested in art and his work is beautiful. I truly do not wish to intrude but it is remarkably beautiful.”
The young man squinted down at his grandfather and put forward my request in what sounded like Italian, but I do not know for certain, it could have been Portuguese. The young man answered with as much disinterest as before, “Sure he won’t mind, he doesn’t even know we are here. PAPA! This man wants to watch you!” The old man grunted but continued without interruption. I drew closer, careful to stay out of his light. His hands were steady and always in motion, but not ever frantic. It was fluid and graceful drawing. He applied each detail with careful but certain attention. He knew what to do with clarity, but he was cautious in application. Each hair was present, each flush. Some aspects were eerie.
As I watched I became aware of how the blood supply would have colored her face, blushing the tip of her nose to the bridge. Hidden aspects of her physiology and anatomy were navigated and added as a light smoky blue tracking around the thin tissues around her eyes, or the cracked pink of her lips and the pale skin that circled and then radiated toward her nose and the sides of her chin.
As he drew he mumbled, sometimes chuckling, sometimes it sounded ironic, or even righteous, but the silences were painful. When he stopped mumbling it felt tragic, as if his trance was coming close wakefulness, and the knowledge the face he presented was a meanness, or trick But he would dive deep again, and pick up the strains of the mumbling.
He nagged at the picture with his pastels and with the eraser. When one feature seemed impossible to correct he moved onto another, only to return to the previous feature and alter it in some subtle way. I thought I was watching a perfectionist, and it brought to mind the image of a sculptor who, ever dissatisfied with one angle or another of his masterwork, chips away at it until all he has left is chips and powder.
I misunderstood. I watched for nearly an hour before I did understand. The drawing of the young face I had first seen had evolved, it had aged. With small steady progress he was animating the face. Her mood had darkened from the first version I had seen, her face had become more angular and stark. As I came to this realization others quickly followed. His mumbling and grunting were in time to the changes of the face. He was reliving her.
He continued, and I did not grow tired of watching. His humming dialogs rode a pendulum of moods. At times the face became lovely, at other moments plain, or very expressive. It was angry, disdainful, happy, sly, and worried. In an extraordinary feat he drew her face in deep sorrow, I knew it to be mourning, and yet it was here most lovely. Her pleasures and sorrows took turn dominating her face. With mastery he aged her. He did not use a guide. He did not have further photographs or reference, only the clarity of his memory.
His mumbling became less frequent. The woman was fairly old. That might be incorrect, she was worn. The most terrible sorrow, to touch her face had marked it and was not diminished though other expressions passed beneath it. Along with this, some wrong had settled into her features. Some corruption that cannot be misidentified appeared as slight hollows in her cheeks, and eyes, and a slackening of her cheeks, which did not have enough substance to become jowls. She thinned, her eyes became large as if in frightened realization, and then they became tired, sunken, weak. Her decline was terrible and my throat ached. I felt the muscles in my chin tense and the corners of my mouth arched down to camouflage the possibility of weeping.
The old artist began to weep. From the angle behind him I could see his jaws clench like a pulse the closer he came to her death. And then the moment of her death appeared in a series of colors too easily placed to believe. Less than a dozen strokes of chalk and she was dead. The face was barren, and terrible. The muscles evacuated tension and the eyes …what other term can be used but dead? Her eyes were dead, that horrible unfocused, sunken, vacancy that is apparent in the eyes only with death.
The old man wept unabashedly. He drew a handkerchief from his pocket wiped his tears and quietly spoke, but I do not know what he said. The phrase wasn’t addressed to me. I am content not knowing, though I will say it sounded sorrowful or regretful. He took the tear damp cloth, wrapped it around his index finger and marred the picture by smearing a cross over the board. He took a small water bottle from his pocket, poured it over the board, and using the handkerchief cleaned away the face in muddy streaks.
I did not weep, though the feeling offered itself. The old man stood with some strength. When he unfolded he was surprisingly tall. He was several inches taller than me, though I had thought he must be shorter as he drew crumpled over (perhaps because the perspective of the woman was drawn eye to eye, instead of from above, I confused his height.) He carefully folded and placed the soiled kerchief in his pocket. He finally seemed to acknowledge me, with a small, maybe slightly embarrassed, smile.
He patted his grandson on the back before putting his arm around him and they set off. The old man nodded to me in goodbye as they walked off.
I puzzled over this for some time as I stood above the woman’s grave. I wondered what the old man did with his neatly folded handkerchief. Did he simply wash it or was there more to his ritual of cleaning away her image with tears? Did he keep all the soiled kerchiefs, each a history, a body of memory? It didn’t seem unreasonable that he might keep any and every sacrament, as his weekly dedication demonstrated, he made new icons of her to venerate if only for the time he spent near her grave. I considered the idea he did keep a collection of kerchiefs, and it struck me these started to take on some impossible aspects. I wondered if those dirty cloths were all the same memories, and marked the days on a calendar that actually extended beyond her life. I wondered if he altered her life making it more ideal some days and beautiful, or if he ever held resentments that colored her time, or even if he created fictional events to add to her life. I realized the ideas began to resemble my old manner of thinking; I was trying to impose scandal upon him. He had shown me another miracle of art and my habits strained to pollute it, and bring it low.
I realized much of what I deem art was a vain attempt to bring the powerful down, to diminish what was overwhelming and steal its powers. I wanted these strange things to accommodate the small, claustrophobic, world I was inhabited. As with the other art I have mentioned here this last left me bereft of cleverness. It stole away the walls of my habitat. I am confused by what I have seen, but I no longer feel the desire to dismantle wonders to offer my confusion a balm.
I am uncomfortable inside my skin. Treading the familiar grounds and habits of my professional adulthood is unsatisfactory. Seeing the common, the ironic, the disgraceful, feels like I am being force fed something noxious. I may have been fed manna and now TV dinners (or Gallery or Museum Dinners) seem unsavory. Many of the so called graces and all of the expressions made by my intimates or associates sets me scowling (or create a guilt that I am not scowling.) I have seen things that dictate I dismiss fools, and frauds: I can’t help but obey. So here we reach my dilemma. My standards and expectations are ruined, which is something for which I should be grateful. I am grateful but I am left with little. I survive, and survive well enough for it to be seen as to be called luxury, on the corruption of these greater things. I regret to write I love my luxuries even as I see them dismantle wonders. I have also found I love art.
In a profound way, I have been shown an impossible world. The clash between my vices and this undeniable virtue does not seem to alter either abstract, but it is tearing me apart. I mentioned I sense another me is emerging, another self, and this is true. It is not so simple as suggesting I have changed. The arts I have seen have “installed” another man, a better man, inside my head. I want him to win, though it frightens me that I would be swept aside. He might pull apart my world; tear down my structures and theaters. This shabby theatre deserves destruction.