Sarah Churchland – THE WISDOM OF BABIES, PT. 5
Erin Thompson – BIA
James Carpenter – ILLUSTRATION AND EXPRESSION
Katherine Moore – A NOTE ON YOUNG KOH’S DRAWINGS
Arnold Klein – FROM MISCELLANEOUS LOVE POEMS
William Nolan – OH DOCTOR, MY DOCTOR
Inrideus – A ROOM AT THE METROPOLITAN
Aaron Steinappfel – MY CHICAGO
Jose Raul Valencia – COMPOSITION NO. 14-19
Learning from Babies
Over the course of this book we have said that it is imperative that we learn from the wisdom of babies. It would be easy to mischaracterize this statement and say that we are advocating for a “return to childhood” or a “flight from adult reality” – a flight from the real work necessary to secure a life for and satisfy the basic needs of ourselves and those who depend upon us. Let me simply state that this is not the case.
Learning from the wisdom of babies does not mean that we should mimic the natural helplessness of babies and look to someone other than ourselves to meet our basic needs. Not at all.
Nor does it mean that we should abandon the wisdom of adulthood, for there is, potentially, such a wisdom.
As adults, we can’t undo the history that has led us into a worldview dominated by the subject/object dichotomy we have described, a worldview that is alien to the more organic way of being in the world we experience as babies. We find ourselves as adults necessarily involved in life as we find it and we must “master” it to some degree if we are to survive.
But are we ourselves to be “mastered” by this world that we find ourselves in, that we have in fact created? Are our needs, goals, and pursuits to be dictated to us by the very mechanisms we have invented to satisfy them? Are we to limit ourselves to lesser conception of what we are and we can be, a conception constrained and restricted by the rigid dualism of subject and object, personal desire and futile object of desire? These are the questions posed to us by the wisdom of babies.
Over the past several chapters we have seen that our wise infants are not prey to the kinds of false desires and futile pursuits that characterize much of adult life. They are not yet conditioned to seek the objects that we mistakenly believe characterize happy and wise lives. They are not on the “merry-go-round” cycle of satisfaction and dissatisfaction.
By embodying Contemplative Receptivity, our infants are accepting of the world as they find it. They welcome the world and “set free” whatever comes within their experience. They do not have the complex, almost baroque wants of the modern adult that lead him to seek to control over and dominate things to satisfy those needs. Rather, the infant’s needs are simple, pure, and limited to the elements needed to flourish. And once those needs are met, babies are attuned to respond to the rest of life with awe and wonder, allowing all things to flourish in their presence just as they flourish.
By embodying Bliss, babies maintain their vital place in the world, and do not set themselves at odds with it through the antagonistic subject/object relationship characteristic of adult consciousness. Babies are uniquely individual but are also at one with the universe, a part of the whole, never wholly apart. And yet it is not through some form of mystical experience or active pursuit that babies “regain” their connection to the All. It is simply part of their innate wisdom.
By embodying Ecstatic Joy, babies live “in joy,” rejoicing in all things. They illuminate the world by radiating joy and, in a way, their joy can be seen as a form of gratitude. Not gratitude for a particular “enjoyment,” for the fact that a particular thing gave them a particular pleasure. A baby’s gratitude is simply the kind of gratitude that is such a part of a happy life that it is almost indistinguishable from happiness itself. The Ecstatic Joy of our youngest infants is simply their rejoicing attitude to the amazing fact of life itself.
But life is not always kind. While we are one with the universe we are also individuals. And stumbling blocks inevitably arise in the lives of every individual. By embodying Wise Sorrow, by shedding Wise Tears, our children experience pain and suffering so fully, intensely and completely that they free themselves from it almost immediately. They do not dwell on pain, nor do they learn to fear such experiences in the future. The lives of babies are lived in the here and now and their experiences are not bound by a concept of time that distorts and distends sorrows into the crippling source of withdrawal and avoidance that too often characterizes adult life.
And by embodying love, our infants open themselves to the world and live what we later as adults spend so much of our lives seeking, not realizing that the love we so want to experience is actually within and all around us.
Can we learn from this wisdom of babies and still maintain our involvement in the practical affairs of everyday adult life?
The answer is yes – but only if we transform ourselves, and in that transformation become wise adults.
Wise Babies, Wise Adults
The wise adult brings the wisdom of babies into play within the context of everyday adult of life. Having learned from the innate wisdom of babies, the wise adult recognizes and reconnects with the primordial needs of life. She has learned to distinguish between the “wants” that set us on the unwise path of adulthood and has re-grounded herself in her basic needs. By looking to babies, the wise adult has set herself free from the artificial desires that take us away from Contemplative Receptivity, Bliss, and that subject us to the false “unhappiness” that we feel when we can’t “have” the things we think will give us “pleasure.”
But unlike the Buddhist monk or devout Hindu, unlike the pleasure-denying Puritan or saintly ascetic who tries to free himself from false desires by turning away from life altogether, the wise adult remains in the world. Only he approaches it now with a far different attitude than the attitude he had before he learned from the wisdom of babies.
Let’s look more closely at these two contrasting attitudes.
The unwise adult seeks to have and possess; the wise adult seeks only to find and cultivate. She has learned to take only what she truly needs and she has the wisdom to let everything else be. Rather than engaging in a fundamentally futile attempt to bend the world to her will and personal ends and wring from it selfish “pleasures” that vanish almost as soon as they’re experienced, she has everything she wants as long as her basic needs are met. Having come to recognize the importance of Contemplative Receptivity she has regained the liberated perspective needed to let all things flourish in their own right and for their own ends. The unwise adult finds the world interesting only insofar as she can exploit it in some way; the wise adult is filled with the awe and wonder at the fact that the world simply is. She lives to be a part of this wondrous world and to foster its beautiful continuance.
Another remarkable contrast: the unwise adult seeks to regain his forgotten direct experience of being at one with the universe by engaging in all manner of unwise behavior. He pursues a false sense of bliss by turning to “new age thinkers” or “eastern philosophy” for guidance, or else engages in pursuits meant to get him back “in the zone.”
The wise adult turns not to gurus or the dance floor, but to those among us who live in the zone we’re actively seeking, namely babies.
By recognizing the manifestations of infant bliss in wise babies we can see that our own bliss is not something we have to find, but is rather something we need only re-experience.
The problem is that everyday adult life is anything but attuned the oneness of which we are truly a part. Our hectic, harried schedules and the constant demands made on our time and energy put us into an almost mechanical relation to things. The unwise adult has lost himself and his relation to the universe in the business, the busyness, of everyday adult life. He has completely forgotten that life is much larger than we are, that we are vitally connected to the universe in a way that has little to do with our petty or even our important personal pursuits.
And yet the wise adult does not abandon his responsibilities and the demands made on him as a responsible adult as a result of learning from the wisdom of infant bliss. He simply recontextualizes those responsibilities, re-prioritizes his life in relation to the larger Oneness of our world. He stays in the groove, he lives in the flow while making the necessary changes that will allow him to remain aware of the Oneness of all things and of his innate bliss while also remaining actively engaged in a new way with the many demands of everyday life.
With respect to ecstatic joy, the unwise adult simply has no contact with it. She has lost touch with the natural joy we see embodied by babies in all their wisdom. Having forgotten that true joy can only be experienced by standing outside of the selfish pursuit of subjective “pleasures” and in joy itself, the unwise adult keeps looking for something outside of herself, some object that will give her that feeling of joy she once experienced but doesn’t even remember experiencing as an infant.
Illuminated by the insight into ecstatic joy revealed to us by our babies, the wise adult no longer needs to look to individual objects or personal relationships to find joy. Because she lives in joy on a daily basis, the very existence of things is for her a constant occasion for rejoicing.
You might have heard somebody suggest to you or to someone else, or perhaps you have even said this to someone else, that you should be grateful for the good things in your life and not focus on the negative things – that it’s best to live a life of gratitude and to give thanks.
Giving thanks is one of the most important ways the wise adult embodies Ecstatic Joy. The unwise adult only takes joy in what he “gets” and is only thankful for what is his – what he can dominate, possess, or own.
The joy of babies is an encompassing joy, a joy that embraces all things and that is based in the fact that we are here to live in this joy.
The wise adult who has learned from the wisdom of infant ecstatic joy does not cease taking pleasure in things, nor does she stop altogether being a part of the usual world of adult commerce and ownership; ecstatic joy simply liberates her from dependency on possession and personal, isolated self-satisfaction as the source of “joy.” When the wise adult enjoys a good meal, she enjoys it fully and no less than someone less wise. But when she has a meal that may be simple compared to the lavish meal of her neighbor, she enjoys her own meal no less because her joy could be no greater regardless of what is on her plate.
Because of the important place Wise Sorrow and Wise Love can have in adult life, we have already talked at great length about both.
Sadness is an unavoidable reality of life. But we can either remain unwise and react to the sorrowful moments of life in the ways most adults react. Or we can learn from the wisdom of babies.
The two paths we spoke of earlier, withdrawal from life and brooding fixation on our defeats, take many forms. We did not mention there one of the most common, and most tragic manifestations of unwise sorrow.
Do you know anyone who has not had to deal with addiction? Either in their own lives or the in the lives of someone they love? We’ve all seen people turn to alcohol, drugs, or other substances as a way of dealing with the stresses that an unwise approach to life necessarily entails.
People become addicted to all sorts of things: food, sex, money. Anything they think will end the sorrows that come wrapped up with a fully engaged life.
Babies don’t take this route. Simply remember, or look back over, what we said earlier about the Wise Tears of babies.
Babies aren’t born with addictions for the most part. This might sound obvious, but it’s important. While there are those sad cases of children born with a chemical dependency as a result of parents who abused drugs or alcohol during pregnancy, most of us probably arrived at an addiction at a later point in life, or we have seen the point at which those close to us have turned to something addictive as a way to escape his real or imagined pains.
Whatever the addiction, drugs or alcohol, food or sex, an addiction numbs us or takes us away from the painful realities of our everyday lives. At least for a little bit. At least until the effect of our drug of choice wears off and we find ourselves again confronted by those realities and in need of another fix.
And not only does alcohol and drug use obscure the reality of our sorrows, they also provide the user with a false sense of other aspects of infant wisdom.
Unwise adults look for “the high” in an attempt to re-experience their lost sense of unity with the world, the joy they no longer experience, their connection to life and the people in their lives. When their addiction has been satisfied, the addict feels a sense of perspective on life that is a pale shadow of insight into life afforded by Contemplative Receptivity. Drugs or alcohol also become paths of last resort to an experience of intimacy that the overly self-conscious adult mind has made so difficult.
And it is this very hypertrophic self-consciousness, this superabundance of isolated subjectivity and selfishness that makes it so difficult for adults to love wisely. This is also why Love is seen as a sort of panacea by so many people.
The unwise adult, the adult who has not yet learned from the wisdom of babies is habituated to an antagonistic approach to life rooted in the subject/object dichotomy we have spoken of. They have not yet learned that there is a deeper, more connected life open to them, but they do not see the path to it. Even when it appears in their own babies.
For many unwise adults, a loving relationship with a partner of their choice seems like the solution to all of their problems. No longer will they feel isolated from life, separated from a oneness they do not even know they miss. No longer will they be thrown back upon the loneliness of their personal sorrows once they have someone with whom to share them. By finding unity in a relationship, sexual or otherwise, the unwise adult mistakenly believes that he will find the bliss that has eluded him over the course of his life.
Love can function like an addiction. And because it seems so easy to distract ourselves from ourselves and our isolation, from our loneliness or problems, in the company of another person, the unwise adult continually seeks this and is constantly disappointed when this “solution” fails.
The wise adult too seeks companionship, someone with whom she can bring to realization the deep pleasure of sexuality. But unlike the unwise the adult, the wise adult knows that love for an individual is not the solution to life’s problems. For she has seen that babies in their wisdom do not limit their loving to an individual. True love, wise love, knows no limits, as we said. It is not fixated on one object.
Rather, wise adults who love each other, who choose to rejoice in life together, who choose to help each other through life’s sorrows by allowing each other to feel sorrow fully when it comes and who help each other continue forward in life without fear, love each other in Love. The private, intimate love they share is but an instance, an intensification and localization, of the universal love that illuminates the wise life.
Imagine a world shaped by the actions of wise adults, adults who are in tune with their basic needs, who approach life with awe and wonder, who rejoice in life and do not hold on to suffering. Imagine a world shaped by the actions of wise adults who have learned from the wisdom of babies.
The Academia of Florence houses Michelangelo’s David, a statue of which I am not fond but which most of the world seems to have gotten on their essential itineraries. The museum also has a set of upstairs rooms full of Trecento altarpieces, looking at which offers not only the pleasant sense, positionally, of tramping about on top of the David’s head, but also definite proper charms. I usually spend my time here, deciphering saint from saint, or painter from painter – Lorenzo di Bicci and Bicci di Lorenzo proving especially recalcitrant -; but on the occasion that begins this story I wanted to look at the museum’s earlier, almost Byzantine, paintings, which are in a room on the ground floor. To get there one must walk past the David and its attendant multitudes, a route that I ill-relish and usually accomplish with my hat pulled over my eyes and my eyes on the floor. I found upon beginning this walk that I had not calculated correctly the size of the crowd, for I had forgotten that the David had recently been cleaned – the Academia is forever cleaning one or another of its possessions and then representing them with great fanfare – and this very fanfare had drawn an even larger amount of tourists than usual. Whatever the general benefit to the world of this freshly-laundered David, to me it meant that I was rather suddenly stopped by a clot of tourists just at that juncture at which I wanted to turn off into the paintings room and they wanted to savor their first glimpse of the masterwork. I looked up to find a way through them, and as I did, I was struck by a large painting hanging in the corridor, one which because of my peculiar mode of passing this stretch of museum hall I had never before seen. It was rather dark and obscure – one of the few works in the museum not yet restored. I could, however, clearly see, as I looked up, one particular figure to the extreme left of the field, half-covered over – almost only peeping in around the frame. I saw it, and immediately turned away, and shouldered through the crowd into the safety of the empty altarpiece gallery, where I spent quite some time staring blankly at a St. George, although it was only after a long while that I recalled where I was, or could identify at which saint’s painting I had sought refuge from that thing in the corridor canvas. It had had a white, blenched face, with great dark eyes – made dark by eyelashes so long that they matted – and a perfect sharp rosebud mouth, with, however, no color, and hair perfectly flat, as if the creature had risen from a pool of oil; I say the creature, for though it had the features of a young girl, and wore the dress of a fashionable maiden of the early 16th century, the ends of the sleeves were hidden, and what was visible was horribly slack, as if the girl’s face were attached to a body with no appendages, one that curled away out of the painting. Upon reflection, the whole thing reminded me of those representations of the snake, tempting Eve to pluck the apple, which are sometimes shown as composed of a woman’s head attached to a snake’s body, curling up around the tree – as in Michelangelo’s own scene of Adam and Eve, on the Sistine Chapel ceiling. But those snakes, with their obvious anatomical incongruities (as well as their unashamed comment on the true nature of womankind) had always appeared to me to be rather amusing; this figure was contrastingly most disturbing. It had drawn my attention, and I felt that if I had continued to look I would have been in great danger of never stopping – of being drawn in through the frame and into its slack embrace, into the rustling space inside of its dress, and down with it out of the painting. Even in memory it stirred me, and only with difficulty did I walk back down the hallway to leave the museum without turning once more to look up at it. I noticed, too, when I walked out, certain unusual movements in that area of the corridor among the crowd – nervous tappings of feet, more prevalent than usual whinings and tuggings on of hands by children, more standings and more pushings – as the result of which came crashing down across my path a German matron, with a stunned and twitching expression on her face, and though I suspected the cause, I knew no solution, and therefore stepped around as best I could and continued out, into the sun.
Next day, I borrowed from my host a catalogue of the Academia’s collections – an old catalogue, without illustrations. It listed a large painting of Bronzino’s, which I knew must be the one with the dark figure, for I began to recall other of Bronzino’s works with somewhat similar persons. The same large eyes cut into a waxy white face were possessed by a little girl, an illegitimate daughter of one of the Medici, in a portrait by Bronzino in the Uffizi Gallery, and the same girl, a little older, appeared as an allegorical figure in another Bronzino in London – at least, half of the girl, for while she had plump, though dead white, arms and legs in the portrait, here she showed slim hands only, the hem of her dress pulled aside to display a snake’s body – she was supposed to be a representation of Inconstancy or Jealousy or some sin – I couldn’t remember, as I had found the painting – and the portrait – unpleasant enough to never want to study it more. Unpleasant, yes – I hesitated to meet the gaze, so to speak, of these figures – but there was not the dreadful repugnant attraction as to the figure in the painting that I had just seen.
I thought that perhaps there was merely something in the manner of Bronzino which was antipathetic to my taste, and accordingly, and gladly, let the matter rest until it was recalled to me by a conversation with the Director of the Academia. My host, a man rather more acquainted with the Director that I would have wished, invited him to dinner occasionally and insisted that I be present, an insistence, though made in friendship, I felt hard to demur. Accordingly, at dinner one night not long afterwards, I heard the Director complaining to my host about the behavior of tourists in the Academia, for, though the restored David was having the expected effect on ticket sales, half the tourists all seemed to stop at a certain point in the hall before they even got to the statue, and to linger there or in the museum for far longer than their usual wont – they usually only stayed long enough to take a few photographs – and though the only thing to look at near the stopping spot was a Bronzino painting, they could not be looking at it, no? For Bronzino is not such a popular artist as Michelangelo, certainly, and the few reports he had received from the museum guards and attendants were that people had complained of the painting being too dark, too hard to see, and that the guards had had to scold some visitors for standing too close, trying to make out the figures. The Director sighed that he would have to have the painting restored, and that then the crowds would return to their proper state of not attending to it at all. My host took a great interest in this restoration project – an interest more, I fear, at heart more pecuniary than scholarly, for he was currently engaged at the museum for a one-year research fellowship, and, having felt how sweet and pleasant it is to be such a fellow – to depart for a leisurely and prolonged lunch after having whiled away a few hours smoking in the library, returning only should it be the appointed day for picking up his ample pay packet – was endeavoring to persuade the Director to turn his year into an indefinitely prolonged position. Hence his solicitous attention to the Director’s cares and woes, the foremost of which, as it shortly turned out, was the restoration of this Bronzino. Not even my so solicitous host was allowed into the laboratory to which the painting had been removed – restorations in progress are jealously guarded from scrutiny – a policy instituted after a few early attempts, using the new scientific techniques, of the latter part of the just past century, at which, the processes having been declared infallible, journalists were invited to attend and observe the work in progress, for, during certain such public affairs, certain restorers, having proudly invited their audiences to watch as they wiped the accumulated grime from some vulnerable Madonna’s face, had wiped the face away as well. There had been additional scandal when these same Madonnas reappeared on gallery walls wholly intact, their faces suggesting not so much a miraculous regeneration as the brush of some painter of a far more recent date than the label of the painting would wish to proclaim. Nowadays, paintings are taken to back laboratories and thence returned to display with a strictly incommunicado period in-between, so that only the observer with a good memory can tell if the Madonna besmoked by generations of church candles has lost those qualities which prompted prayers as well as grime. In any case, my host was not allowed to look at the work in progress, and the whole operation was kept as secret as possible – which turned out to be not so secret after all, for, you see, things began to go wrong.
I myself was privy, at the Academia – the painting having been removed and proper crowd control reestablished, and thus proper conditions for studying my lovely old saints regained – to the voluble flight of the Head Restorer, who strode past me on his way out, shouting such loud and prolonged reasons for his quittance that I am afraid that I did not quite catch them all, and with the Director trotting along behind him, equally loudly beseeching him to stay – but also cursing him for leaving like all the others, for being a coward. The Restorer stopped, and turning to face the Director, said “Ho paura.’ That is to say, “I am afraid” – but, literally, the Italian is “I have fear” – which makes fear into quite a substantial possession, a thing in its own right – a thing such as might have caused the look on the face of the restorer, as he stood there, in the doorway of the room, rubbing his fingertips on his shirtfront, as if to clean them in this sacrificial manner from some persistently clinging filth. His fingers did indeed appear to be filmed with a slimy black, but though his shirt was of the finest white, and his suit light summer linen, not a trace of black rubbed of onto them – and with a last look at his fingers, the Head Restorer turned and left the room. The Director, uncharacteristically but understandably, was left mute at this sight, and until he recollected himself and hurried back to his offices, I had to inconspicuously occupy myself in the opposite corner with a particularly lurid St. Agatha – the one with the red hot pinchers, as you might recall.
There was soon no doubt in the minds of anyone who attends to these sort of things that something was not going quite as planned with the restoration, for a small article appeared in the Journal of Art, with an appended photograph of the Head Restorer of the National Gallery of London emerging from the back rooms of the Academia, looking quite stunned – it must have been an unexpected photograph, for he is usually so well composed. The article declared that the Director of the Academia – with, it should be noted, no mention of the museum’s now former Head Restorer – had called in the experts who had worked on the restoration of the London Bronzino, in order to further international cooperation among museums – and so on. International cooperation is, of course, the last thing that museums actually, in practice, want, and for one Director or Head Restorer to speak to another is an event so rare as to be portended by comets and eclipses – for museums are, after all, companies in competition for the money of tourists with a very finite appetite for art. Hence, from this meeting of Academia and National Gallery, one could diagnose first that the Uffizi – possessor of the restored Bronzino portrait of the young Bia – had already been consulted (national pride being resorted to, when institutional had failed), and that the consultation had failed, and secondly, that the authorities in London, instead of refusing to come, had considered it of enough importance as to send their Head Restorer – which meant that they must have had a problem during their own restoration, one equally as grave – so grave as to override the usual policy of non-cooperation -; however, the Londoners could not resist a bit of point-scoring, and so had leaked the news of their impending consultation to the Journal of Art journalist – a woman who, though purblind, had the requisite nose for artistic happenings, if not art itself. I had met her when my host invited her to one of his dinners, soon after the article, but though she managed to pick all of the truffles out of the common sauceboat into her own plate, she said that she had ferreted out no more about the restoration than had been published.
Whatever had happened in the laboratory between the London Restorer and the Bronzino, the attempt was evidently as unsuccessful as had been the presumed one of the Uffizi restorer, and the date of the promised unveiling of the finished product was fast approaching with, to judge from the Director’s increasing gloom, unbroken by even the finest of my host’s proffered after-dinner cordials, little hope of anything fit to reveal. A small conference had been planned for the new Bronzino, and the Director threw his enegeries into it, in the absence of its actual object. My host, who had, if the Director seemed gloomy, looked positively black – for the Director was in no humor to listen to pleas for research fellowships, even from one whose ear had proven hitherto so sympathetic – came home one day so excited that one might almost have called him panicked. He had just been asked by the Director to deliver a paper at this forthcoming conference. Bronzino was not, strictly speaking, within the area of specialization of my host, who, as far as anyone could recall, had really no area of specialization except the art of the table – but he practiced this so well, and so generously, that everyone who mattered assumed that the fault was theirs, for having forgotten his topic of research, which, they thought, he must undoubtedly have told them at some time or another. In any case, the Director was hardly in a state for such subtleties as these, and had simply adopted the idea that my host was the sort of scholar of which he had present need – since the Head Restorer of the Uffizi, who had promised to give a talk, had cancelled rather abruptly – which happening rather tended to confirm my conjectures about the Uffizi Bronzino restoration. My host seemed rather a humble replacement, and I wondered at the choice until I saw, from the looks of our distinguished dinner companions when he announced his fortune that, though he may have been the first to accept the invitation, he was not the first to whom it had been offered. I deduced that, despite the attempt at secrecy, rumors has issued forth from that back laboratory – hardly surprising, since the painting must have been of some concern to the museum’s staff of guards, restoration assistants, and that class of employees once called “charwomen”, but, I am certain, something else today. Such persons are more or less free to glance around the restoration laboratory, if their duties called them to somewhere in the vicinity, for they were assumed to be both loyal to the museum and unable to tell whether the restorers were employing distilled water or sulphuric acid, or any of the other fine distinctions likely to interest the press and public; however, even if not interested in varieties of fluids, they were likely to notice if something distressing was afoot in the back rooms. And, apparently, notice they had, and had communicated something of this notice, though heavens knows what, to those of the Florentine art world likely to be asked to talk about Bronzino. They had even told something to my host, as we shall see, but he was so eager for his position that he took these warnings only partially into account. Or perhaps it was merely that his Italian is not, at times, of the best.
After dinner, he drew me aside and asked me to tell him about Bronzino – that is, he asked me for the latest research, but seemed happy enough, as I suspected he would be, to hear the whole. He asked especially if I knew anything about what he called ‘the dark figure’ – after some worried and probably unconscious hint of the Director’s or of someone of the lesser museum staff. I told him that, from my brief glimpse of the painting – I did not expatiate on the attendant circumstances and effects, seeing then no need to – I thought the figure to stem from the same source as did the portrait in the Uffizi of Bia, the illegitimate daughter, as I have mentioned, of one of the later Medici. He pressed me for details, and so I continued to discuss Bia – which we know to have been the girl’s name from certain documents relating to her birth and death, and which is supposed to be short for ‘Maria’, but which always reminds me of the Greek βία, meaning ‘force’ or even ‘violence’ – you might recall that one of the characters of Aeschylus’ “Prometheus Bound”, the one who is responsible for nailing Prometheus to the rock, is named Βία. The Bia of our present concern had been born to the said Medici before he was married, and, the Medici being concerned to keep up their family line, had been kept in her paternal household as a sort of reserve child, should her father not produce any others – which was more than probable, given the impotence and short-lived inbred offspring then incident to the family. Her illegitimacy was not to be completely forgotten – hence the portrait in the Uffizi, done when she was about four years old, and in which she is shown with a portrait medallion of he father hung around her neck, to make the painting a more or less official declaration of her parentage – in so far as it was of concern. Shortly after the portrait, her father had finally married, and though Bia continued to live in the now conjugal home, the new wife – an appropriately close Medici cousin – gave birth to a new daughter, also christened Maria, and thought the two Marias could have continued to live parallel, dynastically interchangeable lives, the Bia of the portrait soon afterwards died. The other Maria – we have her, or perhaps her younger brother, in a portrait with her mother by Bronzino, and neither of these two sitters have anything about them which looks anything like the reflecting eyes and sharp fingers of Bronzino’s other Bia – grew up to be one of those fat, ugly, serene Medici women who liked to have themselves portrayed as saints – Mary Magdalene, say – by the equally corpulent German painters they then favored. Bia, too, grew up, in a way, after her death. She died at five, but the figure who so resembles her in the London Bronzino can hardly be much younger than twelve, and from my brief encounter with the Academia canvas, she seemed there to be fully grown – at least in the Renaissance sense – let us say about eighteen years old. She might have continued to grow older on Bronzino’s canvasses, but the painter died in his late middle age, quite soon after he completed the Academia painting – and, incidentally, just after the death of the Medici who fathered Bia. She had apparently made quite an effect on Bronzino – although, I reminded my host, it was more often the scholarly opinion that he had had the effect on her – that is, that Bronzino stylized, transformed, and coöpted his little subject, and that the painted figure could bear little resemblance to the actual girl – for how could any little girl – any human being! – look like that? Such scholars, in my opinion – which I at the time kept quite quiet – tended to forget that Bronzino was capable of painting quite blasé little females – witness Maria the second – and besides, if they would consent to peer as closely at people as they did at paintings (or at least at each other) they might see in the face of a gypsy child or some urchin peering from out the gate of a buried hill-town estate something of the qualities of the painted Bia – but only something. Whatever Bia was, she was it with such potency as even I have never seen in the flesh. More about Bia no one could tell my host, and more about Bronzino I could not – for I realized that I, so struck by the figure, could not even recall the subject of the Academia painting, besides that it was large and dark and may have had something to do with the Last Judgment. My host seemed unconcerned with this lack of specificity as to subject matter, but merely jestingly assured me that after restoration, it would at least not be so dark. He declared that the only thing to do would be to see the thing, and that then he would know what to give his talk about – although I believe that he had already begun to plan his attempt at the amelioration of the conditions of both the Bronzino and of himself. In any case, he said that he would have to consult Duccio.
Duccio was a guard at the Academia. One might think that museum guards, standing so many hours of the day in rooms filled with what have been supposed the most enlightening of objects, would have their spirits lifted, even if forcibly – but, more usually, guards spend less time examining what they guard, and more those from whom they are guarding it – which is reasonable, perhaps, except for the marked preference shown for the scrutiny of those museum visitors possessed of short skirts and high heels, who are perhaps not the likeliest to harbor intentions of damaging the objects that they teeter and titter among. In any case, Duccio was somewhat of an exception to this tendency – at least, he had looked at enough of the collection for long enough to have become endowed with a tremendously knobby Renaissance nose, the kind of thing not bred in the present age – and was even suspected in certain quarters of an equally archaic type of devotion – in that he had been seen with a tear in his eye in the room full of Crucifixions more that once, and had consequentially been assigned to guard the David, a more safely secular subject – more or less – at least one with a great deal of attendant activity to occupy his mind away from devotional thoughts – or the bottle – which is what some others thought the cause of the tears, and of the nose. Whichever the source, he and I had a certain understanding, and so when the rooms full of painted saints were closed – which they often were, for the day, on a rotating and unpredictable schedule – he would let me past the barrier, and I would exercise my ability to become wraith-like, to escape official notice, and at times he would even join me, to talk of various pictured miracles and manifestations. Duccio had also – whether though pious pity or appreciation of port – struck up an acquaintance with my host, and though he was not of sufficient importance to be invited to dinner, he would sometimes come for an after-dinner drink – which occasions were now so multiplied and prolonged that I gathered that my host was trying to persuade Duccio to let him into the laboratory, and that Duccio had neither positively refused nor granted the privilege – and since Duccio did not have what one might call a playful character, there must have been an inner conflict, one whose resolution I heard the fruits after an especially late session, one with disastrous consequences for my host’s liquor cabinet, whose powers had finally led Duccio to make a confession – “He says,” declared my host, “that the thing is haunted, or cursed, or some other ridiculous thing.”
Stung to the defense of Duccio, I told my host about the restorer and his black fingertips and fear, but my host pounced upon the information in quite another way than I had intended. He asserted that the blackness, as well as the general gloom descended over anyone in proximity to the painting, pointed to some source of a more scientifically analyzable kind. Perhaps Bronzino had used some paint which had become toxic over the centuries, only now released from beneath a cover of varnish – or perhaps, anticipating future meddling restorers, Bronzino had even implanted some deliberate – well – my host supposed that the concept applied only loosely to canvas, but still – loosely – traps. After all, restoration was just becoming a science, so to speak, at the time of Bronzino, and might not have he, dissatisfied with contemporary results, foreseen the possibility in the future for his own works? In any case, my host asked if I knew any apposite treatises – on poisoned paintings – even, he added, on haunted ones – in case, of course, such a work was written in code – science in the guise of religion – but in the end, all that I could recommend was a consultation of the Academia’s records of the painting – which had at least the benefit of being unexplored by any scientifically minded Head Restorer.
The next day – for the prior conversation had taken place, as always, after dinner – my host retired to the Academia library. He returned again for dinner, and threw me self-satisfied confidential glances throughout, but only after the guests had departed did he show me the results of his discovery. This consisted in a thick packet of old paper covered in the miniscule and precise handwriting of the Renaissance judiciary, and seemed to be, upon the hurried inspection he permitted me of the first few pages, the record of a trial of an unnamed woman on a charge of witchcraft – through the medium of the very Bronzino canvass in the Academia. Such a record would, one might think, be of immense interest to modern scholars, who are usually all agog over any scandalous details scavengable from an artist’s life – but the librarian of the Academia was not one to let such information loose. She was truly of a rather timid disposition, of the type which believes that secrets should be kept undisturbedly archived, should they not reflect to advantage an artist’s character, but she covered this timidity with such a gruff front that no researcher would have dared ask her for information, even if they believed that she had possessed it. My host, though, had cultivated her acquaintance in the months spent, as I have mentioned, smoking in the library of a morning, and had so far convinced her of his being both gallant and harmless that when he asked for Bronzino’s records she had probably thought that he wanted them only for something to read in the unexpected absence of the daily papers. Whether she had then granted him permission to leave with this trial record or whether he had absconded with it, I do not know – except that he showed a marked disinclination to return to the library – but perhaps that was because he was remarkably occupied in the coming days, for the last page of the trial bundle provided what seemed a valuable discovery. On this page, separate from the rest, and in handwriting more of the church than of the court, was written, “Lustrate the reverse”.
My host, having concluded that this instruction was the result of the trial, and the trial the result of some after-effect of the painting (for the it took place after Bronzino’s death), and having also decided that this effect was more chemical than magical in nature, had questioned Duccio, who admitted that, in so far as the restorers had made any progress with the painting, it had been to determine that something was wrong with the back – in just that area corresponding to where the dark figure appeared on the front – and that the painting was currently turned face down in the laboratory in order to address this problem – but that the Head Restorer had quit precisely after his first attempt to do so. My host expressed himself of the opinion that an application of water – a lustration – might do the trick – and, at least, that it would not hurt to try – since, this very innocuousness of water being a quality not usually recommending itself to restorers, who prefer stronger fluids, it was very likely that he would be the first to make such an attempt. If he could persuade Duccio to let him some evening onto the laboratory, perhaps…. I saw that he wished to deliver a solution to the Director’s problem instead of a mere paper. I asked, for various reasons, if he had considered what type of water he had planned to use. He saw my point at once, for, being an expert on scotches, he knew that waters of different sources have dramatically different effects on the palate. Obviously the ordinary water of Florence would not do – the bottled water was not local enough, while the tap water that everyone drinks bottled water to avoid was too much of its chemical time and place. I suggested, lightly, that he obtain some holy water, which was likely to be drawn from a church well, one in operation since the Renaissance, and thus the closest to the type of water recommended by the manuscript. He agreed with the thought.
On awakening the morning after this conversation I realized that what I had taken to be a slight touch of a cold, the kind of which one always gets at the height of a Florentine summer, was an illness of a slightly graver character. Not being the type to take to my bed, I adjusted my habits merely towards a greater frequentation of the more popular churches, in which my coughs would be rendered inconspicuous by the inconsequential chatter of tourists; I also spent time sitting under the porch of the Ospidale degli Innocenti, whose cool stone continues to minister to the fevered, even if the inhabitants of the building have largely changed their occupations. Most importantly for this narrative, I excused myself from my host’s dinners, feeling them to be perhaps even a cause of my malaise, for they were ever so profuse that even to eat as sparingly as I did was to eat too much. This absence from dinners and all their appurtenant meetings meant that my host, accustomed to make his confidences only within these pleasant bounds, could not change his nature so far as to tell me his plans and actions, and so I did not know what had happened until the end. I had, indeed, kept my host and his devisings in mind, but I had trusted to the relative distance in time of the conference, the reluctance of Duccio, and my host’s usual unequal proportion of talk to action to postpone any definite events. I had miscalculated.
My host, as I was later told, had gone the very next day after our conversation to church with Duccio, who was entrusted with dipping up sufficient quantities of holy water – whether because his fingers were more deft or more devote, I cannot say. A few days went by, during which my host, who had perhaps not at first fully revealed the ultimate purpose of the abstracted holy water, persuaded Duccio, who was indeed reluctant, to accompany him into the restoration laboratory at some appropriately private moment – midnight, say. It seems that my host began to explain his theories of the particular chemical composition of Florentine water and its practically scientifically assured effects on any miasmatic canvass, but Duccio would listen to nothing of the sort, and, at this immovable block, my host switched to a discussion of the holy nature of the water, and, though as he had proclaimed, he believed in nothing of the sort, he perhaps convinced Duccio that the operation would be more in the way of an exorcism than a restoration – and to this exercise Duccio was more willing to agree. Of course he was perfectly aware that my host was no priest, nor likely to ask the attendance of one – but it is my opinion that Duccio had already privately consulted a church official or two – but a situation must be very bad indeed before the Church is willing to perform anything so archaic and generally unseemly to the modern public as an exorcism, and the word of a mere humble museum guard – or even of a whole museum full of guards – was not likely to overcome such reluctance. The word of someone so hospitable as my host, who had indeed been a host as well to various prelates (of various churches) – someone who had perhaps had a fright, though not a fatal one, since protected with holy water – that might be sufficient to bring out the bell, the book, and the candle, properly. And so Duccio procured the proper keys and assured the proper privacy, and thus my host very soon found himself, upon a warm Italian midnight, peering at the canvas with the aid of a flashlight held by Duccio, who had the flask of water in his other hand.
The area requiring action was immediately evident, for, as my host later told me, there was fixed to the back of the canvass, which was still laying face down, a largish square of parchment with writing on it. My host, always an eager searcher after anionic clues, took care to decipher this writing – or at least to attempt to decipher it. The most prominent element was two words written with very broad and somewhat shaky strokes in a rusty brown – but written, curiously, backwards. My host, who had acquired, in a modest way, the skill of reading backwards, in a time when the persuasive content of the speeches of an oratorically gifted schoolboy sometimes rested on the information contained in letters always held vertically upright before the face of a shortsighted schoolmaster who always stood with a window at his back, could report with some confidence that the words in question read “Credo Deum”. This tag was surrounded by a tangle of geometrical figures interspersed with phrases in a miniscule hand; my host judged them to be in a variety of languages – Latin, Greek, and Hebrew being most conspicuous – but was unable to read them, both because of their size and because the ink seemed to have run under what appeared to have been, judging from faint stains, repeated applications of water or some other relatively harmless liquid. The central, backwards inscription had not blurred in the least. In any case, despite the evident care taken in preparing this parchment, it had been applied to the canvas in a rather slap-dash manner, as if with a trembling hand. Despite this, it had long remained undisturbedly attached – except for the water stains – and except for what seemed a very modern attempt to detach it, for one corner was raised up the slightest bit, and there glimmered in the light, as if oozed from underneath the patch, a black and sulpherous substance. Duccio uncorked the flask, ready to repeat these old lustrations, but my host thought differently. The problem lay on the back of the canvas, and this paper was an impediment and an addition which had no place there – and so, not one for tentative measures, he reached down and ripped it off entirely.
Of what lay underneath he had only a glimpse, but since it was almost the last thing that he saw, we might trust his instant impression. It appeared to be a hair – long, rigidly straight, and with a metallic gleam in the light of Duccio’s fascinated light – and it lay among the parted fibers of a much disintegrated canvass – but it did not stay still for long. It made a slow writhing down its length, and then moved in a blur of speed to my host’s hand, which still hovered, holding the parchment, above the painting, and from there up his arm, with a smell of burning, and thence up his neck, over his face, and plunged deep into his left eye. At this movement of the hair, Duccio made a convulsive start, and the holy water from the flask splashed over the painting and the sufferer all together. Duccio dropped his light, and his companion collapsed onto the floor.
Proper order had soon been restored, for Duccio had given a shout and thus alerted several waiting friends – as it happened, Duccio had prevaricated a bit about the promised unbroken solitude – and one could hardly except a museum to be absolutely cleared of guards, even upon a midnight – and why not enlist their sympathies? In any case, Duccio and his comrades carried the fainting, ill-fated, and damp experimenter out of the lab and into the public streets, to which an ambulance was called. That of the society of the Misericordia arrived – a society composed of medical personnel so thankful to have been gathered under the enfolding robe of the Madonna – you surely recall this “Madonna Misericordia” iconography – that they embark themselves on charitable medical missions – veiled in masked costumes, so that they should not be able to take credit for their gifts. Such otherworldly attire must sometimes disconcert the succored, waking unexpectedly in their grasp – but this patient, though he did wake under their care, could not be so frightened – for he could not see at all. His doctors pronounced that some thin object had entered his eye and then penetrated to his optical nerve, there destroying precisely those fibers essential to the operation of the other eye as well – and that, having reached this point, it had dissolved in a chemically quite violent and corrosive manner – which corrosion, however, did very little addition damage. There was nothing that they could do.
* * *
My friend is now a museum guard at the Academia, in that upper room filled with saints on gold ground, which was – and still is – one of my preferred haunts. The Director, although of course kept ignorant of the actual nature of the past events, was perhaps led by the sincerely penitential Duccio to believe that my friend’s misfortunes had something to do with exertions concerning the problem of the painting, and so he was awarded an indefinitely extendible post –as guard, not researcher. This general constriction of means and horizons suited my friend, who had undergone a change of heart based, as he would explain, on the content of the visions he had been subject to upon the penetration of the hair – he had seen, he claimed, the torment that awaited him upon the death which would have resulted should the hair have penetrated any further – for he insisted that the thing had been a hair, product of some creature that he had seen in horrible full in his momentary visions – a mixture of woman and snake, with a white-lead dead face. I told him, in these after-conversations, that I too had seen this thing, if only in a veiled glimpse, peeping out from the painting. The painting had, however, had lost this power. After my friend’s exertions – whether it was the removal of the parchment, the escape of the hair, or the application of water – or, as my friend now vehemently claimed – it was the particular nature of that water, used just in time to prevent the hair from penetrating any further – the dark figure had immediately ceased to produce any fascinating or noxious effects. It had indeed wholly changed its appearance, though subtly so, in a way perhaps not visible to the casual observer – but it had changed, and, indeed, had changed in just that way that the other figures of Bia could be diagnosed to have changed after their restorations. The Uffizi and the National Gallery must have undergone through similar events, and emerged from them with more ordinary portraits of a little girl, now sickly, but not deadly pale, now with bulging eyes still, but not with the hint of what was likely to burst forth from them, now a girl the subject of a inexplicable obsession of Bronzino’s – and not the cause and further broadcaster of such fascination.
As for the nature of Bia, or of whatever her portraits and after-portraits were an agent, my friend did not like to dwell on the question. He preferred to consider the precautions taken as revealed by the affixed parchment, which implied actions far more humanly sympathetic. The greatest problem was the backwards “Credo Deum”, which seemed to me very familiar. The source of this familiarity appeared not long afterwards, when, upon seeing it again during a passage through the collections of paintings of the monastery church of San Marco, I remembered that one of the altarpieces of Fra Angelico shows, as a side scene, the death of Saint Peter Martyr – who, upon being waylaid in a forest and thereupon stabbed in the head, collapsing, used the blood from his own wounds to write with his finger on the ground “Credo Deum”, as a sort of last confession of faith. A great time later, somewhat equidistant from his and our present one, as I now recalled, there had been a period of miraculous upwelling of this blood, and pilgrims had taken to putting down sheets of parchment to get an impress – in a similar matter to the now equally archaic pastime of making rubbings from stone or marble works – and of course, the copies would come out backwards. The rest of the writing on the parchment was then easily explicable as the prescribed diagrams and texts for a ritual of protection from – well – from whatever it was from which protection was thought to be needed – all accreted round a sacred relic chosen, perhaps, for its dialectical opposition to the figure painted on the other side – a figure which must have reacted unkindly to the application of the relic – hence the askew orientation, bespeaking a trembling affixer. The faint stains overtopping the parchment would indicate that the whole affair had been periodically libated – re-ritualed – until a certain period, at which time it had been forgotten or positively dismissed. What had caused the increasing potency of the figure’s affects I could not say – perhaps the stop of the applications of holy water, perhaps a certain loosening in the adhesiveness of the parchment after these centuries, or perhaps the increased nearness of large numbers of onlookers who would not be inclined, in their last moments, to proclaim anything as old-fashioned as a belief in the Lord, and thus who might be though not fully protected by even such a saintly relic. In any case, the sustenance of the patch did seem important, in light of the Head Restorer’s fingers, evidently blackened where he had attempted to peel up a corner, and the most dramatic adventures of my friend.
Nothing more could be known until some months after the events narrated above, when the term of my friend’s research appointment came to an end, and with it a polite but firm request from the Academia to vacate his lodgings, which had been provided by the museum. My friend, who had already been living with Duccio, was invited to stay there as a more or less permanent – and expatiatory – guest, and gladly accepted. He directed the packing up of his effects – having been such a consummate arranger of appearances, he still remembered where everything had been disposed. When we were alone in his study, Duccio being elsewhere occupied in the packing up of the liquor cabinet, whose contents he was as familiar with as his guest, my friend, after a period of agitation, felt his way along a bookcase and pulled out a sheaf of papers, asking me to return them to the Academia’s librarian – although, if I wished, I might read them, so that I might glean more information about what he had seen and known.
These were the papers comprising, as I have mentioned, the court trial of an unnamed woman and the record of the subsequent ecclesiastical intervention, and I did indeed read them more carefully than I had hitherto. The woman had been found, shortly after both Bronzino’s and the Medici’s deaths, in a room in the Medici palace, having gotten Bronzino’s portrait of his wife and her legitimate Maria off of the wall and laid it on the floor, but was apprehended before she could carry out anything more. The woman was said to be of low status – a designation at which we democratic moderns might turn our noses up at, but which we should also remember carried a technical meaning in the Renaissance courts, namely that her testimony could not be taken without a preparatory course of torture – but, under such trying conditions, she admitted no more than that she had been the mistress of the Medici, and the mother of the first Maria, and that she had, since her daughter’s death, become the lover of Bronzino. Beyond that she claimed utmost innocence. One gets the idea either that she was very charming – judiciary torture, after all, did not leave marks – or that the Medici family was just coming into enough power to want to settle certain matters, one way or another, out of court; in either case, she was dismissed, the charge of witchcraft dropped. The Florentines were, at times, either more logical or more private than our own more Northern forbearers. More private, at least, since the court record had ended up in the Academia library, a collection formed from the private Medici archives – the later Medici, in whom we see the affects of attenuated bloodlines, gave away such papers in order to concentrate more fully on their collections of objects d’art made out of various kinds of seashells – very fine ones, we are assured. The earlier Medici, however, had not devoted so much time to acquisitions as to forgo the investigation of their current holdings – as we might assume from the last, ecclesiastical paper of the bundle. Apparently, the woman had been suspected of tampering with more paintings than just the attempted one, and it also seems that the clergy had found out the affected ones and then attempted to counteract them – too late, however, for the life of the Medici, who may have joyed in his first child, but suffered from her image, and for Bronzino, who had, we might suspect, outlived his usefulness. The second woman and the second Maria, their picture having been better protected, lived.
So, then, the woman had done something to Bia’s portrait after her death, perhaps with the help of Bronzino and perhaps without, but if her timing can be thus deduced, an idea of her motivation is more difficult to arrive at. Perhaps Bia had died a natural death, and only then was the wrath of her mother aroused, her expectations having come to naught; perhaps, though, a more personal jealousy might be suspected. Perhaps this woman had held hopes of being a Medici bride herself, hopes finally dying when her replacement produced a child, proof of her fertility. The gypsy stock of Italy is vengeful, and this vengeance will stop at no obstacle, will baulk at no connivance. And after all, the Carthaginians are said to have sacrificed their own children for the fulfillment of their desires, and – witness Iphigenaia – the greatest powers are those of spilt virgin blood – or, perhaps, hair.
Illustration and expressive art represent unmistakably different activities, with regard to reality: the one, a fuller visual formulation of an aproblematic, shared reality—a story or concept, say, that viewers of the illustration will recognize as being illustrated there; the other, an expression of the artist’s own reality, which his work uniquely problematizes and “solves.” Nevertheless, much of what today goes by the name of fine art is in fact illustration, and much of what is actually expressive art is consistently judged according to illustrative criteria. The story in a novel, the subject of a painting, the meaning behind a poem, the emotion communicated by a piece of music—all these are illustrative concepts regularly imported into the discussion of expressive works, as are the comparative phrases with which their critics pronounce them successes or failures, better or worse. Indeed the terms “expression” and “illustration” are often used by artists and critics interchangeably, the former simply being used in connection with a more elusive type of object: self-expression, say, or expression of emotion, in either of which cases what is really implied is an act of illustration, or elaboration upon previously existing, clearly communicable themes of feeling or selfhood.
Expression, in the sense in which I mean it, is something else entirely, and necessitates a different critical approach. In what follows, I hope to work out this distinction a little, and explore some of its ramifications for art criticism and art appreciation in general.
It seems like a relevant observation, in beginning to articulate the difference between illustrative art and fine or expressive art, that the first contains multiple, essentially insoluble “parts” within itself, whereas the second constitutes one self-related whole. Picture and thing-depicted, symbol and referent, artist intention and audience interpretation—all of these are different framings of the componentry of art viewed in the first light; and what is “aproblematic” about art of this kind is precisely that the relation of these parts is given beforehand, taken for granted. Central to these distinctions is the fact that there are, in every artwork of this kind, essentially two incongruous (and not necessarily equal) halves: its meaning, a previously existing or expressible-otherwise-than-in-this-way statement about reality, roughly to the effect of “All this is such-and-such”; and its medium, the various means by which the artwork communicates this statement. The success of such artworks turns upon whether or not they communicate their meanings clearly—which clearness of communication, among other things, is what we mean by illustration.
This illustrative clearness, however, is a complicated thing. Because the canons of communication are established, along with the statements themselves, in a form separate from the artistic medium at hand—as, say, spoken commonplaces, or intellectual “concepts”—the clearness of the artwork in communicating them consists not only in the unambiguity of the meaning it conveys, but also in the sharpness of the distinction between that meaning and the means the artist has used to convey it. In other words, when we praise such a work, we’re at once upholding the union of meaning and medium (“what he’s saying about love in this poem is —”; “that painting of a tree looks just like a tree”) and their irreconcilable disunion (“this poem is a pretty way of saying that thing about love [which could be said otherwise]”; “that painting is not, in fact, a tree [which also exists in another form, its real form]”).
Having said this, though, what would be the alternative? Presuming that artworks are of things that they nevertheless aren’t, what other possible relation of meaning and medium could artworks represent, besides this one of both-the-same-and-different? On the one hand, to say that they are simply different gets us nowhere with respect to art; it only puts meaning and medium in the relation we put them in when we are relating the events of dreams, say, or when we describe nature as chaotic. The whole point of art seems to rest in some relation of meaning and medium, some relation that is not chaotic or disorderly. Yet on the other hand, given the ubiquity of the aproblematic, both-same-and-different relation of meaning and medium, it seems like too much of a stretch to say that an artwork’s meaning and its medium can simply be one and the same. The idea is contradicted by our ordinary usage of the terms: meanings (as in “hidden meanings”) are the significances we take to lie behind or beneath the things that convey them, and mediums are precisely those conveying things—so called because they mediate between ourselves and those underlying significances. To think of the two as identical would be to get rid of the whole concept of an artwork being of something in the first place, and seems, on the face of it, as difficult as thinking of a person’s character being identical with his costume.
But in the works I’ve been calling problematic or expressive, meaning and medium are in fact the same thing. In this case, in place of a preexisting statement, an “All this is such-and-such” that the work heterogeneously communicates, the work can be said to constitute at once a very specific framing of the question, “What is all this?” and the only answer that suffices to settle it. This identity of meaning and medium, this framing of the question of reality that is so individual, so specific, as to constitute the reality it seeks to understand, is what I mean by the term “expression.” It is, in fact, what we all mean by it, insofar as we use it—as we use the term “meaning” itself—equally to signify the act of expressing and the concrete import of that act. True, ordinarily we think of the concrete import of the act—say, “an angry expression”—as expressing something else, an emotion separate from it; but this is only due to the general nature of our commonplace expressions. To the extent that “an expression” concerns itself with being truly attuned to the emotion it expresses—as works of art do to the utmost degree—it is inseparable from that emotion; and the emotion it expresses is not itself a general one, indifferently expressible in many ways, but is as individuated and nuanced as the means of expressing it are. Unlike the reality with which illustrative communication deals, reality framed in this way cannot but be problematic, because it begins and ends with the work that seeks to define it, and so has no existence outside that particular act, that problem, of definition. Reality in this sense does not exist outside the exploration of it, in some clearer and more comprehensive form that waits to be better understood; it is that exploration, and depends for its substance on the success or failure of that exploration as an act.
This raises what I take to be a defining question: namely, on what scale do we measure expressive success or failure, absent any such outside reality to use as a criterion? The peculiar “communicative clearness” that constitutes success for illustration represents such a criterion; within its relation to the pre-established reality to which it refers, it has, as I’ve said, two conditions it must satisfy: the union of medium and meaning (“that painting of a tree looks just like a tree”) and their irreconcilable disunion (“that painting is not, in fact, a tree”). Lack the first condition, and the illustration will be unrecognizable as a depiction of something; lack the second, and it will be unrecognizable as art. Either means failure, as far as illustrative value is concerned. And for illustrative works that satisfy both of these conditions maximally, we have a term: we say that such works are virtuosic. Virtuosity in depiction relies both on likeness and unlikeness in maximum degree, because it implies not only that we recognize what the depictive reference is to, and marvel at its verisimilitude to that object, but appreciate the fact that it is a reference, and marvel at the artist’s ability to pull it off in his medium. The first implies that a likeness has been accomplished, and the second, that because it is only a likeness, it could have been accomplished in some other, less-right way. Within this scale of valuation, all referential work finds its place—even primitivism, which we might call the virtuosic imitation of non-virtuosity.
With art as expression, however, there is no such thing as virtuosity, precisely because virtuosity is the measure of one’s skill in accomplishing something that could be done in many ways, better or worse, and expression is something that can only be done the way it is done, in the single instance. This is what is meant by calling illustration a technical art—a craft—as opposed to the more nebulous “fine art”; what is fine about the latter is not that it involves a better made or more elevated reference than illustration does, but that it is not to be evaluated in terms of reference at all—it is its own end, its own finis. We use the term to express the finality or finishedness of such artworks, their autotelic only-ness of form, their quality of having been made in this way and in no other. To say there is no external reality by which such works can be judged—to say that their meaning and their medium are inextricably co-involved in one another, such that they must be evaluated on their own terms, to be evaluated honestly—is to dismiss the question of their virtuosity altogether.
But having done away with that external scale of valuation, how do we judge whether artworks are successful or not? What is the criterion of judgment in an expressive work?
One barrier to approaching this question directly—say, by seeking a single definition of expression that could be used to decide in each case whether it were being done well or not—is intrinsic to the individual nature of expression itself: if we came up with a rule that told us what good expression was, we’d be at risk of simply canonizing a new kind of virtuosity, a new pre-established relation of medium and meaning, and hence of committing the same conflation of art and illustration over again.
Perhaps sensing this—or at least facing the divergence of the two forms, while attempting to square critical ideals with democratic ones—our age has hit upon what looks like an alternative to comparative criteria, to be used particularly in judging works of fine art: namely, the subjectivity of individual viewers. Allowing everyone to say for him- or herself whether a work of art “works” seems at once to avoid the pitfalls implicit in setting standards for something as elusive as expression, and to get at the real meaning of expression itself. For if what expression expresses are the thoughts and emotions of an artist (who is a subject), and whom it expresses them to is a viewer (who is also a subject), then subjectivity, it seems to follow, must be the whole point of the transaction. According to this line of thinking, artworks represent relationships between artists and viewers, and since subjective judgment is generally the best criterion to use in judging relationships—outside of special cases like criminal trials or therapy sessions—so it must be for judging an artwork. After all, unlike functional objects, a work of fine art doesn’t do anything except sit there being (subjectively) experienced by viewers; and without the artist and his “meaning” here to compare our experiences against, how else are we supposed to judge it, but subjectively?
This assumption, that fine art doesn’t do anything but get subjectively experienced, is exactly the point at issue; and on closer examination, it represents a new form of the same conflation of expression and illustration that I have been discussing so far. As expressive objects, works of fine art actually do quite a lot—just not anything that other things also do; and the reference of all their meaning to the subjectivity of the viewer is as mistaken as it would be in forensics to refer all conclusions to the subjectivity of the witness. It is only when we take such works for illustrative or referential objects that they seem to be doing nothing but appealing to our subjective judgment, by failing to appeal to comparisons of other kinds. And a kind of comparison is exactly what a subjective judgment is. Seemingly an alternative to the illustrative, virtuosity-bound mode of judging artworks, it’s merely the same mode over again; only now, in place of an obvious external object to which the work is supposed to refer, we have the subjective judgment of the viewer as our referent, in conformation with which the artwork is supposed to stand or fall. Thus subjective critics, who seem in so many ways to depart from the systematic rigidity of the art historian or technical critic, are in fact no less beholden to fixed comparative standards of judgment—standards that, in originating with themselves (or their conventional schools), appear that much less systematic.
As various and interesting as these judgments may be, expressive artworks as such are not relationships between viewers and artists. They’re expressive artworks; and though we have good reasons for treating them, as Cavell says, “in ways normally reserved for treating persons,” the real point of comparison is not that people and artworks are both essentially subjective, but that they are both types of things that differ from other things, in that they often require us to make non-comparative judgments to properly appreciate them. Subjective judgment doesn’t give us the criterion we need for achieving this kind of appreciation with regard to artworks; it’s only our most recently invented, most subtly disguised mode of mistaking expressive artworks for illustration, and continuing to misappreciate them accordingly. But the aforementioned problem still stands: how do we set up any standard of evaluation without doing that? What does a consistent but non-comparative criterion of judgment look like?
One way of characterizing what we’re doing when we say that Velázquez’s or Lucian Freud’s (in fact expressive) works are virtuosic, is that we’re taking a bird’s-eye view of their art—we’re momentarily pretending, as it were, that they’re doing something that other works do also, and comparing them favorably to those other works. But “pretending” is only the right word for it if we do nothing else, since this comparison is not, strictly speaking, incorrect; it would perhaps be more accurate to say that we’re taking them at the level on which they’re doing what other works do also. It is the truth, perhaps, but nowhere near the whole truth—or even, really, the right kind of truth. It’s how we might talk about a person we don’t know very well: to say, “such-and-such painting is a likeness” is like saying, “so-and-so is a male human being”—the two statements are equally true with respect to their objects, and equally short of the truth. Both are serviceable in an offhand way, but not of much use to a friend, or to a critic—who is (though perhaps some of them are liable to forget it) a true friend of art. As we get to know a person better, and get closer to their individuality—to the extent, that is, that we care about them, and avoid taking a solipsistic or strictly subjective approach to their existence—we’re forced to become more and more particular about what we describe when we describe them. With our closest acquaintances this will even take us up to a point of ineffability, where we simply use So-and-So’s name to refer to the collection of irreducible peculiarities we know as So-and-So. “That’s so him,” we say, with an emphasis as specific in meaning to us as it is vague to someone who doesn’t know him; and for others to ask us what we mean, to ask for other terms in which to frame the likeness, is for them to place themselves on the outside of our meaning altogether.
This apparent continuity between the bird’s-eye view of a thing, which treats that thing as comparable to other things, and the zoomed-in view of it, which treats it as irreducibly unique, would seem to account for the possibility of the conflation between art and illustration: in that sense, it’s entirely a conflation of interest in the viewer, a stopping-short of the more specific approach that would account for the thing in its own terms. But this doesn’t quite do it; or if it does, it undercuts the very premise of the distinct existence (and distinct valuation) of expressive works; for if individuality is simply a matter of the viewer’s interest in a thing, anything—certainly any artwork—could count as expressive, simply by virtue of its being attended to closely enough. And in a way, this possibility does seem plausible enough to be taken seriously: can’t this more specific approach, this zooming-in on the individuality of the thing, indeed be undertaken equally regarding illustrative works, and even non-art objects, as regarding expressive ones?
Certainly it could be argued that, just as every person, simply by virtue of being a person, is an individual—and every object, in representing its own configuration of matter and spatial boundaries, is non-consubstantial with every other object—every finite, concrete artwork, of whatever kind, is fundamentally unlike any other. Again, on a certain level this is true, and true even of works that only exist in reproduction, like prints. (Digital prints may come the closest, out of anything we make now, to material non-individuality; but even with those there are microscopic differences, say, in the surface of the paper, or distribution of the ink.) Nevertheless, it’s missing the point. These kinds of differences on their own aren’t what we’re talking about when we talk about artistic individuality—and we could say this even if the differences we were reckoning with were not simply physical differences between art objects as things, but more peculiarly aesthetic differences (say, in facticity) between them as art objects. Even to many critics such differences would seem to be all the individuality we need take note of in artworks: in even the most generic illustration there are individualities of brushstroke, choices of color and medium, pressures of hand, perhaps, and so on, to say nothing of the themes and objects painted; and to someone with an interest in these factic minutiae, they might easily be taken for expressive qualities. That in expressive works these minutiae do indeed tend to become expressive qualities makes the mistake even easier to make. Yet as with people and objects, mere individualities are boundless, and to name them in whatever order occurs to us, and then to pronounce on the object in accordance with that order, is only subjective judgment in a particularly dry guise. Here, then, as there, the real question is not, Are there differences between this artwork and others that can be used to individuate it? but rather, Are the differences between this artwork and others that we use to individuate it, actually the ways in which it individuates itself?
In asking this question, we’re pointing to a discontinuity between the two kinds of view, the bird’s-eye and the zoomed-in—an operational asymmetry that accounts for the fact that though it is easy to mistakenly treat artworks according to an illustrative standard, it’s not (strictly speaking) common for people to commit the inverse mistake. This is the case because what we have been calling the zoomed-in view is not simply a closer version of the bird’s-eye view, but rather a different kind of view altogether—one that revolves specifically around a thing’s internal functioning, and that consequently cannot be taken of anything made according to requirements external to it. Far from adverting to subjective interpretation, we are here bringing up a quality consistent to individual things that is nevertheless not comparable between them: namely, what we might call their self-functioning. It’s this to which we properly refer in determining the relevance of whatever individuating qualities we pick out in a work, as it is with our judgments of people’s individuating qualities, when our interest is in that work’s or person’s individuality as such. A person has a blood type that we can’t tell from meeting him; we could liken this to atomic differences between one artwork and another, say in the composition of two sheets of paper, but it seems more to the point to liken it to the “inspiration” that can’t be seen in an artwork. In both, these invisible qualities are admittedly present in some way, and may well be relevant to someone judging the functioning of the person as a potential blood donor, or the functioning of the artwork as a factor in its creator’s biography; but to someone asking who the person is, or what the artwork is—stressing the active-verbal nature of that is—they represent information external to, and at best causally explanatory of, that person’s or that artwork’s individuating function: what the thing does that makes it what it is.
With this notion of the self-functioning of a person or thing also comes the possibility that, individual as every thing or person may well be in terms of qualities accidental to its self-functioning, in terms of qualities relevant to it there are indeed some things and people that are less individual than others—not, that is, because they lack individuating qualities per se, but because they themselves don’t function in such a way as to render the individuating qualities they do have relevant in describing them. The zoomed-in view gains us no more than the bird’s-eye view does, in getting to know such individuals; or rather, the distance is relatively long at which we seem to recognize that there is no more to be gained from zooming in. And if we have little difficulty seeing certain people as self-constituted after a general model of intelligibility—the inescapable subtleties and complications of psychological reality notwithstanding—how much easier should it be to think of certain objects as constituted this way by their makers, who indeed have every habitual incentive to do so? In a world of made things, expressive artworks are by far the exception rather than the rule; the rest of everyday life, even the everyday life of an artist, offers precious little reason to pursue real individuality in any form. It is infinitely more practicable to act as others do, than to act as will only make sense within the total context of one’s own considered actions; to speak and write in commonplaces, than to coin one’s own intelligible new metaphors or phraseologies; to elaborate within a recognized visual lexicon, than to make visible the reality one really sees; to argue within systems, than to follow the seemingly chaotic order of one’s own wondering.
Not only is it infinitely more practicable to do these things, it is infinitely simpler to judge their products appropriately. We need not even be steeped in art for comparative examples to judge an artwork virtuosic; we need only say that it is comparatively better, as a thing of its kind, than what we encounter generally, since virtuosity is no more than value in comparison. This is why such judgments, even when made in the name of objectivity, so easily lead us back to the subjective: being based in comparisons with the things we’re used to, they vary with our individual ranges of experience. If what we are used to reading is the kind of storytelling we generally find in newspapers, thrillers and neighborly gossip, the works of a talented detective novelist will count for literary art as much as Henry James’s works do—perhaps even more so, since, in “getting to the point,” the detective novelist is that much more economical at achieving what we’re used to valuing. It would take pushing past such comparisons—and ultimately even past comparisons with more expressively germane novelists like Flaubert and Hawthorne—to get at what makes James great in a literary sense, as indeed it would for our detective novelist, if his work were made to hold up to that sort of scrutiny.
Yet it is not only for the sake of expediency that non-individual objects are made; to suggest this would be to elevate the apparent continuity we have found in experience between judgments appropriate to expressive works and judgments appropriate to illustrative ones to the level of a value judgment between the two, and say that expressive works are better than illustrative works, because they allow for a closer view of themselves. This is not the case, simply because (again), despite our being able to conflate them, the two are actually incomparable. The experiential continuity between them does not do away with the absolute functional difference between them, any more than the continuity between a conventional person and a marked individual (as human beings) does away with the functional difference between them, in how they each relate to their own individuality—a difference that is, philosophically speaking, absolute. We can take a bird’s-eye view with respect to an expressive work, just as we can with respect to its illustrative counterpart, but this does more than simply fall short; or rather, what it falls short of is another view entirely, involving a complete switch in what is viewed—namely, the self-functioning of the thing. That this factor is there to be viewed in this way at all, that it acts as an informing presence—the informing presence—in the case of the expressive object, is precisely what distinguishes that sort of object from an illustrative one, the entire being of which is referential and appreciable only in comparison with other things. To judge an expressive work is to look for its value on the level where it is not meaningfully comparable with anything but itself; and this is difficult, not because it involves more attention of the kind we ordinarily pay to things, but because it involves a different kind of attention altogether. Judging something as an individual requires suspending comparisons to other things until the particular relevance of those comparisons here is made manifest; discovering the meaning of references within it, rather than taking them as given; looking for patterns of meaning that may have no correlative elsewhere; constantly adjusting one’s whole understanding of the thing in accordance with the mutually informing and informed significances of its parts.
Among other things, this requires a certain provisionality of judgment on the part of the critic, which most critics—steeped as they are in a critical tradition rooted in comparative pronouncement—eschew as a fault. The critic who wishes to judge a work in its own terms has to assume from the beginning that the thing is exactly as it should be, and maintain that assumption at least until the order disclosed thereby shows any of the work to be out of keeping with the rest. Yet a good critic will maintain it much longer, having learned, from long experience attending to a wide variety of great individualities, to assume it likelier that his view is faulty than that the work is. In the case of very complex works, even works we find unquestionably great, this may mean a long time, sometimes a lifetime, spent feeling as though one hasn’t quite “gotten it”—which, to the critic habituated to approaching artworks this way, can nevertheless be the opposite of a painful feeling.
Quite as often it involves the opposite discovery, that works one does “get,” and even loves, are not expressively individual; for at the very least it means drawing a sharp distinction between subjective judgments and other kinds of referential comparisons on the one hand, and judgments appropriate to individual things on the other. In today’s quasi-democratized critical atmosphere, such a distinction of referential and expressive works seems the height of snobbishness, since it is assumed that if we once allow that distinction, we must necessarily conclude that the first is good and the second is bad, and dismiss out of hand anything that doesn’t “measure up” to the rarer standard of expression. Yet beyond the fact that this assumption is fallacious in the first place, those who seek to avoid the snobbery seemingly implicit in distinguishing works of these two types by applying comparative subjective judgments to them all, are liable to take up the very real one, of equating art with what they like. Our age has seen an unprecedented profusion of popular arts, whose value is manifestly not of the kind I’ve been calling expressive, but is instead referential; seeing this, and imagining that drawing a distinction between these arts and the “fine” or expressive arts would make for a puritanical purging of so much of what people find enjoyable, our critics have instead opted to deny the difference altogether by treating all art as referential, reducing the value of everything to virtuosity and reserving the last word on that virtuosity for those with the broadest basis of comparison to draw upon—namely, themselves. And inclusive as it may seem in the hands of a critic of broad taste, this approach tends to lead to a narrowing of valuations as pernicious as the one it seeks to avoid: rather than risk treating referential works as deficient expressive ones and (unnecessarily) restrict themselves from their enjoyment of popular art, such critics tend to treat expressive works as particularly obscure or out-of-date referential ones—as indeed most of them must seem—and quietly leave them off in favor of more readily accessible effects.
By contrast, a critic who is able to draw the distinction between things he can judge with reference to other things and things that must be judged in their own terms, is quite free to enjoy both as he will, and able to uphold the standards of excellence peculiar to either without applying them across the board. To such a critic, distinctions need not be tendentious; in fact, to the extent that the difference he recognizes is a fundamental one, such as the difference discussed here, comparisons of value tend to become meaningless, because different things bring with them different criteria of value. There are, of course, expressive critics who make the opposite mistake from the pop-art reductionist, and call for everything to be judged by the expressive standard. Certainly, as with the pop-art reductionist’s quasi-democratic impulse, there is a fundamentally understandable motive at the heart of this tendency, namely, the wish for all the world to be expressive. If the pop-art reductionist adapts art to the ideal of a universally democratized world of immediately comparable things, the fine-art zealot adapts it to that of a world of masterpieces, in which everything in it is a singularity of self-defined beauty. Yet as glorious as each of these ideals may appear to the people who espouse them, the real world resolutely conforms to neither; and if the pop-art reductionist is reproachable on the grounds of his cynical refusal to enjoy anything but what he can reduce to commonplaces, the fine-art dogmatist is equally so, for rejecting the kind of enjoyment in comparison that he might share with everyone around him. Where the other risks losing himself in populism, he risks alienating everyone else in favor of solipsistic asceticism. His kind of enjoyment is admittedly very deep, and he is right to desire its increase in the world around him; but precisely because it deals in individuals and not in commonplaces, there is a real limit to its shareability with others, which limit is only foolishly taken for a value in itself. Our lives may be utterly individual to us in the final analysis, whether we are notably individual people or not; but they are also connected, generalized and everyday, and in an existence so defined by the opposite of enjoyment, it is perverse—even in deference to an enjoyment we take to be richer—not to welcome what enjoyment may come from that quarter also.
Having taken what care I can to approach this last part of the question from what I see as both sides of it, I hope I don’t seem to betray that equability by reiterating that in our time, we are infinitely more liable to mistake our expressive works and individual people for referential ones, than the reverse. Our critical subjectivism, along with its adjuncts in art history and psychology, has proven a most efficient tool for reducing every meaning to a reference, and every value to a comparative value; just as our pursuit of equality in social and civic life, laudable as it is, has decidedly favored a comparative interpretation of equality, rather than an expressive one. As in our politics, our prevailing aesthetic dispute is not over whether we will use a comparative standard, but over which comparative standard we will use—the subjective one simply being the one that most often wins out.
In part, this is the case because, as I have mentioned, the alternative doesn’t seem to be a standard at all: the expressive view of a work of art has no pre-established setting for what kind of judgments will be appropriate to the individuality in question, or to which aspects those judgments will prove most relevant. Yet it is a discipline worth cultivating nevertheless, and not only because it allows us to properly appreciate things that we otherwise misunderstand. Expressive artworks are intrinsically valuable, and appreciating them for themselves—this being the only way to appreciate them as individuals at all—is certainly something we should do for the sake of critical rectitude. But there is another, far more fundamental end to be accomplished in judging them this way, that remains to be mentioned. When we seek to judge something in terms of itself—when, rather than fitting that thing to a comparative standard that we bring to it, we look for the standard of our judgment in its self-functioning—we are seeking to adequate our minds to it, to adapt our understanding to the requirements that thing sets for us. Insofar as we succeed in doing this, we are, critically speaking, acting in accordance with our own individuating principle—that aspect of ourselves that is truly open and adaptable to what the world will show us, that is free to change and expand as it will, and that is not reducible to any general standard, even the standard of our own subjective experience. Rather than resting satisfied with correlating the parts already available to it, such a mind appreciates what it experiences (as economists use the term) by growing to accommodate it, and becoming a more expansive, complex experiencer as a result. In appreciating the self-functioning of an expressive artwork—a thing entirely constituted to be unique—we sidestep the received criteria of comparative judgment that necessarily precede us, and act as individuals ourselves.
 Some artworks, which we call indeterminate, seem to have ambiguous meaning, but to the extent that they’re aproblematic, their meaning is as straightforward as any. “All meaning is open to interpretation by the beholder” and even “reality is fundamentally meaningless” are—qua discrete statements expressible in verbal terms—determinate meanings.
 The professions of, say, Surrealism notwithstanding. Even apart from the Surrealists’ psychoanalytical bent, the meanings of Surrealism were perfectly determinate, and determinately linked to their mediums. At the very least, they meant, “this is what nonsense looks like when you paint it”—which, despite having nonsense as its subject-matter, is as intelligible a code as a tagline in a Coke ad is: it presumes a common reality in which nonsense is a thing that looks like something in particular. In this sense Surrealism, absurdism and “magical realism,” when judged as fine or expressive art, share the same artistic failing: they all rely on an underlying assertion of everyday reality, for the force of their subversion of it.
 Which nevertheless, in the case of public and religious functionaries—to say nothing of actors and dancers—we do all the time.
 As do others; cf., particularly, Collingwood, Principles of Art, Cavell, Must We Mean What We Say? and Goodman, Ways of Worldmaking.
 It’s interesting to see the ways in which illustrators who lean to one side or the other of this balance supply their own particular shortcoming. Thus political and conceptual painters, whose works often lack visually recognizable correlates, might help the viewer along with words or contextual references, whereas hyperrealist sculptors, whose works risk being indistinguishable from their objects, widen the gap with grotesque artificialities of scale, truncation, position, etc.
 For which reason there seems to be a limit to the appreciable virtuosity of photorealistic paintings, and their value to us as illustrative art. In order to elicit even the most vulgar “Wow!” a photorealistic painting has to be recognizable as a painting, or it will seem just another photograph.
 Or more fairly, the virtuosic imitation of what counts as virtuosic to another sensibility than our own.
 And for similar reasons. The fact that forensic doctors, and witnesses, and judges, and juries, are all people, and therefore subjects, does not mean that their functioning as doctors, witnesses, etc. should be made to revolve around their subjectivity; and that the reverse is taken for granted in the case of artists, audiences and critics in our society is more indicative of our habitual dismissiveness of the arts, than of any sense in that conception.
 As a critical problem, this new form of the same conflation—presented as an alternative, expressively appropriate mode of judgment—is disastrous; but lest it seem strictly a critical concern, it has concrete practical implications, too. Take it as granted that artists will make the works they have it in them to make, whether those works are destined to be judged correctly or no. (Whether or not this is the case, I leave for another discussion.) Even so, practical loss accrues to the rest of us whenever, by relegating the critical question to subjectivity, we pass up the opportunity art affords us to enlarge our own reality by the real consideration of someone else’s. If we look to expressive art to expand our experience in ways that illustration—with its necessary basis in reference to what is already familiar to us—can’t, we do ourselves a real disservice by treating it simply as another kind of illustration with a more private, but no less familiar, referent.
 This description fits much of what goes by the name of “formalist” art analysis these days, in which objective qualities like paint handling or the use of perspective are enumerated for a while—some of them gaining more traction than others, according to the sensibility of the analysts—then used as the basis for an extensive session in free association, the only real value of which is its disclosure of the subjective nature of the whole undertaking.
 That this function only ever appears to people, and therefore is taken for a quality open to subjective interpretation, is the source of much philosophical mischief. Again, solipsism is of course always an option; but does anyone actually conduct his daily life on the assumption that the functioning of fire on solid matter is a subjective quality, on the grounds that he observes it so functioning, or because it hurts him to stick his hand in it?
 Arguably far more so than in the world of persons, since not all truly individual people—or even many of them—care to express themselves by making individual things!
 And this is only to get at what makes James great as a novelist; to see what makes The Wings of the Dove great as a novel takes pushing past comparisons with The Golden Bowl.
 Cf. a recent interview with the author Jonathan Lethem (self-described in an earlier interview as “the best read person in fiction that I know”), who refers to “old, hierarchical, and class-anxious systems of putting quarantines around popular culture that rock and roll, and film noir, and R. Crumb, and the great science fiction writers, and Raymond Chandler had all made absurd…to anyone who actually cared about culture.” Presumably there is somewhere an old, hierarchical and class-anxious author, equally well read, fuming to an interviewer about the validity of examples like Mr. Lethem’s being “absurd to anyone who actually cares about culture.” And happily, there is a third critical option open to us.
 We might recognize, in this comparison, the equally facile one commonly drawn between the liberal and the conservative mindset. Certainly the basic accusations leveled by each at the other—that the one follows a policy of inclusion so rigidly as to tyrannize by it, and the other upholds an individualistic standard at the expense of the common good—are recognizable, as (perhaps) is the fatuousness of taking either as the sole principle of human action.
The following note was received by the editors. While we generally only publish by invitation, we do read all submissions and, from time to time, publish those we like.
The past several issues of The Revenant have included drawings by New York based designer Young Koh. So well have her clients kept her reputation confined to the limited sphere of true fashion cognoscenti that relatively few outside that world know of her work or of her exclusive but passionately devoted client base. So it was a surprise (and wasn’t, for isn’t it always only a matter of time before word gets out about these sorts of things) to see her featured on your site. Koh’s is work that calls for attention. But what can we say about it? Is the work that the work does something that calls for words?
I’m assuming you answered this question in the negative, hence the standalone images. To be sure, the work does stand on its own. But if we were to speak of Koh’s work, what would we say? I’d like to offer an attempt.
To begin, we would need to eschew traditional ways we talk about fashion. Even considering the work in terms of “fashion” itself implies, to take but one example, a kind of relationship to time Koh’s work attempts to avoid. Fashion, as we know, is “fashionable,” soon destined to become “unfashionable,” outmoded by new “looks.” The wearer of Koh’s clothing, however, does not sport a new “look” and hence is not fashionable. In some sense, the wearer of Koh’s clothing resists the “look” of the world and its time, for the clothes are not seen nor worn in relation to the fashions of “the day.” Rather, they the clothes speak from a standpoint taken from within the time of life of the person lucky enough to have arrived at the point of wearing them. We find in Koh’s work a kind of fashion that is neither fashionable nor unfashionable.
I’m afraid I’ve already gotten ahead of myself, but readers familiar with Koh’s process will at this point anticipate the rest of what I’ll say. For those less familiar with her method, let me take a step back. Young Koh’s designs evolve out of a partnership with her clients. Through dialogue with Koh, the client articulates her initial sense of what she thinks she wants Koh to design. This involves pointing to existing, typically ready to wear or haute couture pieces (themselves more or less ready to wear in the sense of having been conceived independently of those who will in fact wear them) and discussing their personal sense of style and what they think “looks good” on them. Typically, in the course of dialogue, the client discovers that she in fact does not know what she likes, having only been offered styles that designers have determined “look good” at a particular time. The question of what the client would wear if she could wear anything (rather than simply being worn by other people’s clothes) is one that few people have ever asked themselves and is the question Koh leads her clients to pose. Engaging with Koh in this sort of dialogue (I speak from experience!) leads to a sort of productive confusion, one that problematizes the client’s relationship to all past experiences of fashion. Moreover it positions the client and the designer as equals, as co-creators of an apparel (for a personhood) that has never appeared in the world before.
It is from this state of empuzzled wonderment that the real collaborative work of designing the clothes begins. Koh’s dialogic process thus allows drawings to come forth that are less “bespoke” fashions than fashions through which the client speaks for herself, as it were, possibly for the first time. We call the resulting clothes “ultra-bespoke,” not in the sense of “ultra” as we find it in the more and more commonly used term “ultra-luxury” (i.e., “super” or “extreme” luxury), but in the sense of “beyond” – clothing that is outside or on the other side of what fashion per se can speak.
If Koh’s process sounds familiar, we can say that there may be a relationship between her dialogic method and that of a certain ancient thinker whose conversations led interlocutors into supramundane realms. Koh is essentially engaged in a difficult form of maieusis, helping her clients to be reborn as the authors of their own appearance. To engage Koh’s services is to run the risk that one might not be up to the task she demands. If to author one’s own wardrobe can be a form of self-expression, what if it turns out one has no self to express?
Yet I myself am wandering into dangerous territory, I fear. If it is correct that those who wear these remarkable works of existential collaboration stand beyond the saying of fashion, what we say about it, were we to say anything, runs the risk of reducing it to something it isn’t and can’t be. Essentially, I think The Revenant was right to showcase Koh’s work without comment. Yet it does call for attention.
Love, thus rapt in
Your sketch, you are the water that a crystal trapped in
And withheld from
The world that would pollute it and the spring it welled from:
How distill it?
They say that quartz is ice that has become so chill it
Sets, its phase changed
Forever—so, though now he sees your eyes unglaze, changed
From their ice blue,
Does your lover find them, from so far their twice blue
Greets him here—as
Crystals that he sought, but knows what distant eras
Went to form them,
And how infallibly his touch would fail to warm them.
Your spine is like a line of verse in braille one come bent
On one more touch
Can never touch enough, its spondills so do court touch:
When we part—what?
They say that verse was framed so men could learn by heart what
Bards gave voice to,
And Muses through those bards—and con would I rejoice to
What I now touch;
And if you chide your lover that to so endow touch
Too much exalts it, love, till you touch each indention
As this dunce has—
Like one who’d con a verse and finds he more than once has
To re-read it—
How tell if he aggrandize touch, or you exceed it?
Love, unnerved so,
And turned in like a fiddlehead whose crozier, curved so,
Your shyness draws the notice that so disconcerts it:
Am I staring?
But turns this shy are due remarking this unsparing
For their rareness;
Nor will the fiddlehead’s volutes, for all May’s fairness,
So if your lover tries, what costs you so, to stay time
By his prying,
Love, unless he’d lose the sight of beauty, shying,
Pry he’s bound to;
For who can see the fiddlehead, itself turned round to
Form its crozier,
Without at once intruding on its self-enclosure?
Love, to our side,
Like sapphires we solicit stars from, from their far side,
There still peeks out
A shy blue wink from round the eyes your lover seeks out:
How accost them?
We know, of sapphires, that the silken rays that frost them
Most purely when we front them—and if such express stars
Are implied still,
Love, don’t blame your lover for the time he bides till,
Having shied long,
You hazard, to his sidelong glance, a glance as sidelong.
Love, the light falls,
And as would phosphorescent gems that, after night falls,
Are alone light,
Your blue eyes seem to glow with what must be their own light:
Are there dual lights?
For nothing, till they phosphoresce, suggests the cool lights
That such stones store,
So much more lunar than their sunlit hues, their own store
Of cool hues is;
And if you ask me which, of such responsive blues, is
More my liking,
Love, with different blues for every hour striking,
How decide that—
And how precipitate of me, if I replied, “That!”?
O doctor, my doctor it’s of Nembutal
I dream, of barbiturates that acquit.
Of lushes thrid into their altitudes. Of pigs
rolling in their shit. How I long
to join them there, my head floating in the air,
cushioned on a Dutch collar.
Yes, I’d buy that for a dollar.
Here now, your dwarf is gloating.
But where has the Abbess hid?
O doctor, my doctor, there is no bib
that’s thick enough, no weight of lead
can shield. From red-rag to bread-bag
the odor slips. It radiates
like cold from steel. Note the viscosity
in the throat. How like it is to fish
sliced and served in a brown butter.
Not even the dog remains unfed
though the cat in the branches chokes
and the invalids are left to beg.
By the same magic the mute’s transformed.
For my final trick, I’ll transmute you too.
O doctor, my doctor, our crimes remain unproved.
We’re lucky, wouldn’t you admit?
The Dean of the Thistle is still unmoved.
But the Archimandrite of the Eastern Church
puts his finger to his nose.
Under a heavy pillow he’d suffocate. He’s
but a mortal, true?
I’d like to be my own nurse. You’d like to be
your daughter. A fusty acorn
shoots no sprout. What is it that you see
up there? Let us stop a moment and
wet our whistle. Let us
let down our hair.
Here is yet another shoat
splayed upon a slab.
Nothing but the numbles and the lights are left.
Brains, liver, heart and spleen.
Have they been surgically removed?
O doctor, my doctor this hinting at your hints
is a terrible, terrible, unclean thing.
There is no water that can wash it off,
but on your wall I see
a picture of a civet in a cage
crashing against its bars like an oil-soaked wave.
The Witch of Eye
has written on our palms
intimations of our feeble fates.
Tired nouns in apposition to tired
nouns. Vapid as sex dolls we sit entombed.
Wrapped in waxy cerements we wait.
O doctor, my doctor, what have you
on your hook? Familiars in the shape
of mice? A sin we must accept our own
as others might a wayward child?
And what if we had let it live?
Had reared it, held it in our hands?
And what if we had let it live,
But that isn’t what we did.
Now damned to wander past the fiery lake,
to crawl across Egyptian sand, screwed
of our inheritance and our estate
by feckless fathers and the Prince.
Let us squander what remains
like Esau at the Belvedere.
Do you remember Belvedere?
Surely you remember Belvedere.
It was there we saw the fountains spew forth jet,
a bile as black as coal-charged ink,
and watched the death plant draw its flies.
Its spadix held a double sex, I think.
You are not what you seem, I think.
O doctor, my doctor,
what’s the opposite of heaven?
Sulfur’s a smell we cannot shake.
Just short of the Lehman Wing, in a part of the Metropolitan Museum usually passed through with even more carelessness than usual, is where they keep what are arguably the strangest objects in the museum’s permanent collection. Permanent they certainly are, and—unlike almost everything else in the place—always on view; though most of the museum’s visitors never see them, or take notice of them if they do. Part of this is their situation in the midst of the “European Decorative Arts” galleries, a formidable gauntlet of spoons, mirrors and other such recruitments from the upper-class bric-a-brac of more exquisite times; at sight of which, the resolve of all but the stoutest aesthete quavers. And fair enough: given the treasury of recognized masterpieces in other parts of the building, and only an afternoon to snap blurry photographs of them all, it’s no wonder most of the museum’s patrons only walk through these galleries on their way to some other—or, more often, to the cafeteria nearby. But for the few who do care to look, even the bric-a-brac is reliably spellbinding; a thing one can’t always say for the objects I mean, whose peculiarity often goes unappreciated even by those who pause to puzzle over them.
I refer to the group of period rooms—whole interior spaces, many of which were brought over piece-by-piece from their original locations in Europe and reassembled here in their entirety. They are mostly 18th– and 19th-century, and of French, English and Italian origin; including among them dining-rooms, bedrooms, balconies, even a storefront, complete with signboard. Short of the Cloisters—essentially a larger version of themselves—they are surely the museum’s most audacious acquisition. Moving the objects in a room is really no mean feat by comparison; barring a few logistical issues, it’s a matter of one thing after another. But imagine transporting the room itself—where would you start? The ceiling, I suppose. But then, how to pack it? And what to do with it until the walls are in place? I wouldn’t know how to label such a thing, much less transport and reassemble it; but here they are, a dozen of them or more altogether, sitting around innocuously with the forgotten spoons and mirrors standing guard outside.
Along with the guards themselves, that is—such as there are. Most of the period rooms have ropes or glass barriers across their doorways, which, along with the rooms’ lack of display-cases and other conspicuous effects, lend them the appearance of something unfinished. Accordingly their visitors, when they have any, usually pass by them with (at most) a comment to the effect of, “I wonder what it is they’re planning on putting in there?” Even with the ones that can be freely walked through, that’s about all people do with them. So as far as guarding them goes, they’re a cakewalk, as any museum guard will tell you. On a typical shift there, you’ll have to direct a few people to the bathroom or the cafeteria, and you’ll have to keep an eye on the teenagers who wander through from time to time (who’ll take advantage of any dimly-lit and sparsely-populated area, in one way or another), but that’s about it. The museum keeps far fewer guards around in these galleries than in most others, so it does get a bit lonesome; but for those of us guards who aren’t particularly “people” people to begin with, that’s no real objection. All in all, it’s a good Sunday beat, if you can get it, which, at the Met, happens in two ways: you’re either assigned to it, or you’re the first one there when I am—because when I’m assigned to it, I trade it away as soon as I can. In this I act on the suggestion of a friend of mine, a former guard whom I will call Mr. Woodwright. He was a cantankerous fellow to work with, and not one whom many, including myself, took over-seriously when he left. But I have my own reasons for believing his story now, which I will get to by and by.
* * *
Mr. Woodwright had been a guard with the museum a long time, and it was by sheer coincidence that he had never been assigned to the part of it I mention, until a few years into his tenure there. This was rather an injustice on the part of the fates, since, to such a man as he was—equally endowed with the sense of beauty and the reluctance to indulge it in company—the period rooms represented exactly the ideal situation: namely, beautiful habitations without any inhabitants in them. Many of the more misanthropic museum guards derive their keenest aesthetic pleasures from interfering in those of others; but even without patrons to harangue, Mr. Woodwright remembered having plenty to occupy his mind that first day.
One room had especially caught his attention. This was a circumstance the more remarkable for the fact that it was one of the few rooms he didn’t find particularly interesting in itself. The room is easier than most of the others to find, being one of the first that you encounter in a short hallway out of the Medieval Art galleries. The placard next to it gives it out as one of the suite-rooms in the Hôtel de Crécy, a 19th-century hotel in Bordeaux; little else of importance to our story is said about it there. For those who have not seen it, the room’s description can be achieved very briefly. It is a small, circular space, with high walls and very pale greenish wallpaper. To the left of the doorway where you stand to look in over a waist-high glass barrier, you can see the back of a half-open door; straight ahead and to the right, there are a few high shuttered windows with curtains, and a pair of statuary-niches. Small cabinets and end tables are placed around the walls, and in the center of the room are some sitting-furniture and a parlor-table.
Now its location, dangerously close to so heavily trafficked a part of the museum as the Medieval Art galleries—where the bathrooms are—was the first disagreeable aspect of the room for the standoffish Mr. Woodwright, but it was hardly the last. More particularly distasteful to him was the extent to which the curator had gone to enhance its verisimilitude. Most of the museum’s reassembled rooms have only such furnishings in them as make for relevant art objects themselves; which has the effect of maintaining the spare, untouched quality of the room, and so keeping real life somewhat at arm’s length. The props here, however, were distractingly lifelike, and included objects of a decidedly non-aesthetic character. It was obvious that whoever had arranged them had given free rein to his dramatic tendencies, in a rather overwrought attempt at suggesting human occupants. Articles of nondescript clothing were cast seemingly at haphazard over the backs of chairs. Cards and gambling-tokens littered the parlor-table beside a dish of egregiously artificial oranges, one of which (as Mr. Woodwright noticed with particular disgust) was modeled to look half-peeled. There were even a blank sheet of paper and some writing materials spread out in a clearing among the cards, as though one of the players had been interrupted by a sudden inspiration. A muddled story indeed, for a curator to attempt telling!—and, to a classical sensibility like Mr. Woodwright’s, hopelessly vulgar. But it was not one to arrest my friend’s contemptuous eye for long. He was a man used to following his taste, as I have hoped to suggest; and managed, for the remainder of his shift, to restrict his beat to some of the more rewarding galleries, where the presence of other persons, factual or imaginary, was kept to a pleasant minimum. Indeed he had a very agreeable day of it altogether, and more than once found himself wondering why he hadn’t spent more time in this part of the museum before.
On his way out later that evening, Mr. Woodwright chanced to follow the short hallway again, and for whatever reason—perhaps to indulge his sense of moral superiority—he found himself looking for the second time into the little hotel room. And perhaps the long day had overtired him, for he now found his attitude to have somewhat warmed toward it. The room itself was not so bad, if not for all those silly props; and gratuitous as those were, even they were not unimpressive, in a tasteless sort of way. It was really a wonder some of them hadn’t struck him so when he’d looked at them before. The half-peeled artificial orange, for instance, looked so much more real than it had that morning, that it almost seemed to have dried somewhat in the interim. Surely it wasn’t a real orange they’d used—?
But that was absurd. More likely it was a change of light; which, at any rate, might account for the appearance of the windows. I should mention that all of the museum’s period rooms have soft lights behind their windows, to suggest an exterior of some vague, past-bound sort—the light in a Degas painting, perhaps. But the light behind the slatted shutters of these windows, if much dimmer than usual, was somehow more suggestive, too. Really, if it had been another time of day, one could easily have imagined it to come from outside the museum. To enhance this effect still further, one of the windows’ shutters—Mr. Woodwright did not remember taking notice of it before—had been left slightly ajar, and the curator had somehow contrived to direct a cool draft through it, sufficient to rustle the curtains on either side. Ah, but in this he seemed to have gone a bit overboard, as Mr. Woodwright noticed with some satisfaction; for the blank paper and a few of the cards from the little parlor-table had been blown to the floor. How careless! Mr. Woodwright had half a mind to leave a note bringing it to his supervisor’s attention, to spite the arrangement; but then, it would hardly look right for one of the rooms to have been disturbed on his watch. He had left it unguarded for most of the day, after all. Better to have someone else discover it in the morning, than for him to admit not having noticed it today, he decided at length; and he left without further incident.
* * *
It was a few weeks before Mr. Woodwright was again assigned to a patrol anywhere near the European Decorative Arts galleries, and when he was, it was not to these galleries themselves, but to a special exhibition in the Lehman Wing, just beyond them. The museum had hosted a private cocktail party there at the end of the evening for a group of its trustees, and being short a doorman for one reason or another, had coerced Mr. Woodwright into staying—how, for so profane a purpose, I cannot say. Consequently, it was well after midnight when he was able to get away; at which time, naturally enough, he took the shortest way out that he knew. This brought him by the hateful 19th-century hotel room for the third time in our account; and as threes so often figure significantly in stories like this one, it will perhaps surprise no one as it did Mr. Woodwright, that there should now be something new there to arrest his attention.
Yet to him it was a surprise indeed to find the writing paper and cards again scattered to the floor, if perhaps more violently than they had been before. Of course, this time the reason was all too apparent. The open window’s shutters were ever so slightly wider than before, and the curtains on either side of it were waving violently in what had become a very cold breeze. Far from being addressed, the problem of the curator’s artificial draft had somehow been made worse.
This placed Mr. Woodwright in an embarrassing position. Obviously it wouldn’t do to have the wind blowing so strongly into the room all night; who knew what other disturbances it might cause? But the museum’s directors, its curators and their assistants had all long since gone home. Only the night-shift guards, the cleaners and a few other functionaries were left on the premises; and for the same reasons aforementioned with regard to the museum’s visitors, it was likely enough that they would fail to venture by here. Evidently, if the room was to be battened down and rearranged for the night, it was Mr. Woodwright who would have to do it. To be sure this, though forbidden to him under normal circumstances, was no great sin; after all, he thought, it was only a few foolish props he was undertaking to move around, and not anything more incalculably valuable. Still, he would have to find a way to bring it up with someone the next day to ensure it was not some delicate art-historical allegory he was muddling up.
He stepped cautiously over the waist-high glass barrier at the doorway. Immediately he had the feeling there was something amiss, as one sometimes feels with someone waiting around a corner to surprise one. It felt, as Mr. Woodwright would later put it, “as though it had suddenly changed from being a room that no one was in, to being a room that no one was in any longer.” Hurriedly he picked up the cards and writing paper, and replaced them on the parlor-table in as fitting an order as he could. There—that was all right. Now, what was to be done about the draft from the window? For draft it must be, and a pretty strong one at that. God only knew what sort of apparatus or vent the fool curator had installed back there; but for the moment, Mr. Woodwright realized, he would at least have to block it off, to keep the tabletop in the order he’d put it in. Accordingly he went to close the shutter, and in so doing, he caught sight through it of something completely unexpected. Indeed, he had stared at it for some moments before he could be quite certain of what he was seeing.
This, as it turned out, was the dim view of an exterior, as seen from about the third floor of a mid-sized building. An exterior, I say, as though it were something difficult to describe; yet this it was not, comprising little more than a copse of naked trees to the right, bordered by a rough path leading somewhere under the window, and an abundance of brush, blowing in the breeze. I admit, I resort here to the indefinite article in a rather clumsy attempt to express Mr. Woodwright’s state of mind; for even after a few long minutes of puzzling, he found himself quite unable to determine exactly what exterior this might be a view of. Yet he was certain, at least, that it was not the exterior of the museum. For one thing, it was the wrong time of day. By his watch, it was nearly one in the morning—long after dark—but here it appeared to be just barely growing light; and a clear dawn sky it looked to be, too, in strong contrast to the fog and rain New York had been having. Nor were the trees in Central Park anywhere near bare of leaves, as they all were in the scene he looked out on.
But here this indirect sort of describing must leave off, as it was here that the utter unreality of what he was seeing came home to Mr. Woodwright, and he turned in a daze from the window. That he managed to quietly close the shutter and get out of the room without knocking anything over—and then to walk out of the museum without speaking to anyone of what he had seen—says more for his self-possession than I can say for my own; but so he did, and it was not until he was out of the building and on the train home that his brain calmed enough to consider what he had just experienced.
Not that there was much to consider, beyond the familiar limitations to one’s own view of things. Reality is very often unrealistic, when it’s strictly our own; and like many a philosophical curmudgeon, Mr. Woodwright felt no need to add to his perplexity by sharing it with anyone else as yet. But one question did recur persistently to him, to the credit of his speculative openness; and that was: what did the reality out the window imply for the reality of the room’s former denizens? It had not struck him at the time, that there should be people included in such a tableau vivant; but that was when he’d still thought of it as an exhibit in a museum. Now he was not so sure. He had seen trees, plants, a road; where were the people? Were they simply missing at the time he’d looked? Invisible, within the confines of this strange vision? Or were they gone, for some other reason? In any event, he felt his curiosity would not sustain another intermission like the one that had preceded his last visit, so he made up his mind to investigate the room more closely the following night, regardless what part of the museum he found himself assigned to.
The next day, as ill luck would have it, he was assigned to the very-difficult-to-trade-away Contemporary Wing—a place no great distance from where he wanted to be, but almost perfectly ill-suited to distract him from his impatience while he waited out the day. Hours of staring numbly past various glops of encaustic, tangles of string and rotting animals in glass boxes did little to blunt his anticipation; nor, I am sorry to say, was he quite as assiduous as he might have been, in alerting the contemporary-minded masses to “stand back, please; stand away from the art.” Granted, a hatchet-wielding maniac might not have caused much appreciable damage to the works there, even given a generous head start; but as a measure of Mr. Woodwright’s involvement in his job, the day’s performance was not laudable. At the end of his shift, it was all he could do to make his way down the stairs and through the Decorative Arts galleries, leisurely enough to avoid the inquiries of his colleagues. Somehow he managed it, however; and soon he stood once more in the hotel-room doorway. With bated breath, he surveyed the room’s contents, sure that this time there would be some new indication of its missing occupants.
But no! the room was entirely as normal. Every prop was in place; and the window-shutter—which remained shut—now disclosed nothing but the usual soft artificial light behind it. The curtains were motionless, the oranges gleamingly plastic. It was utterly, tastelessly perfect once more.
For some long minutes Mr. Woodwright stared at the room, as though by force of will he might bring about its transformation back into an object of interest to him. Yet evidently having relearned the trick of every empty room, it remained stubbornly itself; and coming to realize that there was nothing more to be done about it, Mr. Woodwright gradually took himself away from it, and left the museum in great disappointment.
* * *
Disappointment and confusion, I should say—which latter quality, helped along by perhaps one glass of wine too many at dinner, had increased to bewilderment by the time our friend boarded his train home that night. For speculative as he was, Mr. Woodwright was a man far too confident in his own faculties to go through anything like the usual course of reasoning in such situations, which somehow leads otherwise sensible people to attribute perfectly clear sensory data to such influences as indigestion, “strained nerves” (whatever those are), the wind, and so forth. No, he knew very well that he had seen what he had seen; it was simply no longer the way he had previously seen it. Considering that the first change had been inexplicable, it was hardly more of a stretch that it had changed back. Only, it would be so much nicer to know the mechanism of it! Perhaps, he thought, it was one of those things that comes only once in seven years, or thirteen years, or some such likely integer; in which case it was a pity he hadn’t stayed to see it out, either of the previous times—presuming that there was more to be seen. But then again, perhaps there wasn’t; there was certainly no rule, to his knowledge, that the inexplicable had to be persistently engaging.
It was with thoughts of this kind that Mr. Woodwright’s mind was occupied, a little while into his commute, when his eye happened to travel around the subway car and fall with interest on one of his fellow-passengers. This would have been unusual enough under ordinary circumstances, for a man as little taken with his fellow-man as Mr. Woodwright was; but then, what caught his eye about the young man seated across from him was not so much any particular human quality about him, fascinating as those doubtless were. It was, rather, the book the young man was holding—which, owing to its reader’s extreme nearsightedness, was held up flat, like a screen, not five inches from the young scholar’s nose. As a result, its title was just discernible to Mr. Woodwright, who, upon leaning a bit closer, was surprised to confirm that it was indeed—I can hardly believe it myself—Unsolved Mysteries of the Belle Époque.
Little inclined as he was to occasion the removal of this convenient barrier between himself and his neighbor, Mr. Woodwright immediately recognized the potential relevance of the book to his own presently unsolved mystery, and leaned still farther forward to address the young man.
“Excuse me, sir,” he said, in a tone rather at variance with the usual drift of that phrase, “but do you mind if I have a look at that book you’re reading.” (His sentence, as he spoke it, very clearly ended with a period.)
The young man, emerging thick-bespectacled and rabbit-like from behind his covert, directed an empty stare at Mr. Woodwright. Confirming that it was himself to whom the latter had spoken, he smiled blandly and held up the book a little in front of him, exhibiting its cover.
“I mean, may I look inside it,” Mr. Woodwright said, barely concealing his exasperation.
With a shocked expression, the young man considered for a moment, then relented. “Sure,” he said, passing the book across with a more committed reiteration of the bland smile. “It’s a bit boring, but interesting.”
Passing over this paradox, Mr. Woodwright quickly sought out the index. A scan of C brought him to Crécy, Hôtel de, and he flipped to the relevant page. At the top of a column, he read Disappearance at the Hôtel de Crécy, Bordeaux.
“Incredible,” he breathed, reading on:
The Hôtel de Crécy was an historic hotel, located on the left bank of the Garonne River in Bordeaux until 1986, when it was demolished. A number of its suites and furnishings were at that time acquired by the Metropolitan Museum in New York, and can still be viewed today. The hotel enjoyed a boom in popularity in the years immediately following the Franco-Prussian War, the first of three wartime occasions during which the French capital was temporarily relocated to Bordeaux. Among the hotel’s notable guests were Toulouse-Lautrec muse Marcelle Lender, and the famous tenor and theatre director Achille Félix-Montaubry.
“Who?” muttered Mr. Woodwright impatiently.
“What?” said the young man, wrinkling his nose; but Mr. Woodwright only continued to read to himself (fortunately drawn on to the relevant section by the book’s framing of sensational terms in quotation marks).
On December 21st, 1870, three of the hotel’s guests were said by authorities to have “disappeared” under “unusual circumstances,” very early in the morning. Witness reports filed with the police noted that the three men, registered with the hotel as merchants, had behaved “suspiciously” in the days prior to their disappearance, locking themselves in their suite and keeping “constant, fearful vigil” at the windows. This behavior was linked to a rumor that the men had escaped Paris—at that time under German siege—and betrayed the allies who had helped them. Yet this “rumor” (“Why this one in quotes, and not the one previous?” Mr. Woodwright wondered) was never substantiated, and no further sign of the men was ever found. Their predawn flight was “abrupt,” as the police were able to judge from the state of the suite they left behind, but—
Here our acquaintance with this interesting account comes sadly to an end. The train had reached Union Square, and closing the book with a snap, Mr. Woodwright handed it back to its startled owner with a perfunctory “Thank you” and walked briskly out, trembling with excitement and determined to catch the next train headed back uptown.
* * *
For the fortuitous intervention of the book’s account had started the following chain of ideas in Mr. Woodwright’s head. The disappearance of the men from their hotel suite in Bordeaux had occurred very early in the morning in December—predawn, according to the account. This was consistent with the view he’d seen out of the hotel suite’s window, and with the time he’d seen it—after midnight in New York, which, he imagined, wouldn’t have been long before dawn in Bordeaux at that time of year. It had only just reached dusk when he’d left the museum tonight; it was not quite eleven now; if he headed back, might he not catch the phenomenon as it was beginning? It couldn’t hurt to be sure (he thought, rather unaccountably)—and so he had decided to head back up to the museum as quickly as possible.
This, however, was not to be nearly as quickly as he hoped. In one of those minor transit disasters that only seem to befall one when one is in an extreme hurry, the uptown train ahead of Mr. Woodwright’s happened to be stopped in the next station, for some kind of lengthy criminal investigation; which not only caused Mr. Woodwright’s train to be stuck in the tunnel for more than half an hour, but also caused it to be diverted to the local line afterward, etc., etc. And so, to make a long story short (as even ghost-story writers may sometimes pretend to do), it was again well past midnight by the time Mr. Woodwright arrived, breathless and sweating, at the museum’s entrance, where he was dismayed to find two police cars outside. The policemen in the cars seemed to be on their way out, so to avoid any involvement in whatever they were there for, he swallowed his impatience and delayed himself a bit further in a walk around the block.
Finding the police mercifully gone when he returned, he swiped himself in and ran up to the main lobby. There he found three of the night-shift guards and a cleaner, conferring heatedly with one another. They all looked up at him as he came in.
“Woodwright,” one of the guards said—or perhaps he used his first name; I’m not sure. “What are you doing here?”
“Forgot something I needed,” Mr. Woodwright said, hastily adding, “I’m out all the rest of this week. What were the police doing here?”
“Oh, you didn’t miss much,” said another guard. “False alarm.”
“False alarm,” repeated the cleaner.
“Dave’s hearing things,” said the first guard, gesturing at the one of them who hadn’t yet spoken. The latter bristled with indignation.
“I did hear it,” he protested, then added in explanation to Mr. Woodwright, “I heard a gunshot and a yell, clear as day.”
“From inside the museum?” Mr. Woodwright asked, heart in his throat.
“Yeah, from back there by the Lehman,” the other said, pointing. “Just the one shot and the one yell, but I know I heard it.”
“Nobody found anyone,” one of the other two guards said.
“Or saw ’em run through here,” observed the other.
“Nope,” said the cleaner conclusively.
“I heard what I heard,” sniffed Dave. “And I coulda sworn I heard the other thing, too, when I went up there”—again turning to Mr. Woodwright—“a kinda bumping, like someone running down a flight of stairs.”
“We all hear things, once in a while,” said the second guard. “Just the other day I heard someone calling my name, in a real low voice. Do you think someone was? Of course they weren’t. Personally, I think it was indigestion.”
“Or the wind,” said the first.
“Well, I’m going to head back, if it’s all right,” said Mr. Woodwright, starting away.
“Yeah, it’s fine,” said the second guard.
“Hey, keep an eye out for anything weird,” called Dave after him.
Mr. Woodwright circled through the first floor, making as though to head down to the coatroom before doubling back toward the European Decorative Arts galleries. He encountered no one on his way there, and before long he was alone again in the short hallway. Alert with expectation, he approached the familiar glass barrier.
His speculations had been very well founded. The room had again changed; and now the change was far from subtle. In fact, it looked as though the place had been ransacked. He wondered that none of the guards or police had taken note of it. Two of the chairs were overturned, one of the cabinets was thrown open, and a smallish box lay open on the floor amid a chaos of cards and oranges. The door to the left was now wide open. The window-shutters were no more so than they had been before, but a light breeze again played among the curtains.
His hands trembling, Mr. Woodwright stepped over the barrier. Again, he was at once assailed by the feeling of recent desertion, made stronger now by certain new details. Behind the open door on his left—which should have disclosed, at most, a bare wall or crawlspace between this exhibit and the one immediately adjacent to it—Mr. Woodwright now saw a long corridor, carpeted in garish red, lit by a few oil lamps in sconces, and having, at its far end, the head of a set of stairs. There were tracks of some blackish stuff on the carpet, as though someone had tramped through in very muddy boots; though to the consternation of all reason, no distinct boot-marks were visible, there or in the room. The overturned box on the floor, Mr. Woodwright now saw with considerable misgiving, was an empty pistol-case, with a few old-fashioned cartridges scattered beside it. The sheet of writing paper lay on the table still, weighed down by its accompanying pen; but there now appeared to be some hasty scribbles written across it. Mr. Woodwright picked it up to have a closer look at it. The room was too dim to make for easy reading, but a weak light appeared at the edges of the window; so he crossed to the shutter and, allowing himself no time for prevarication, threw it open.
The scene outside was much as he had seen it before, with only a few minor alterations: the breeze was much colder, and the dawn a good deal farther along. But no—there was one other, rather odd change, too: there was now a muddy trail outside, evidently a continuation of the one in the hallway, which extended from the ground below him to the edge of the copse of trees. On the way from one to the other this crossed the path, by the side of which, whoever had produced it appeared to have dropped a large, dark bundle of something—rags or dirty laundry, perhaps. Or was there something moving inside it? Mr. Woodwright stared at this for some moments, but could make nothing of it; and turned his attention back to the paper in hand.
The words were in French, and seemed to comprise the opening fragment of a letter; which, it was clear, had been begun in a great hurry. It began:
Tu as notre pénitence; c’est juste comme tu l’as dit. Nous étions sauvages—pire que les bêtes! Mais c’etait le désespoir qui—
At this point, a muffled sound outside startled Mr. Woodwright away from this artifact. He would have to have the note translated, he thought abstractedly as he looked out the window; for, sad truth to tell, he had not understood a word of it. In the meantime, though, here was something unnerving: someone had apparently come along, removed the pile of rags from the path, and vanished under his nose. Well, whoever this was, he was quick—Mr. Woodwright must just have missed him on his way down the path. Or was that the sound of his foot on the stair? A very light foot, perhaps, but yes, undoubtedly it was someone: and coming up in a hurry, too.
Before he quite knew what he was doing, Mr. Woodwright found himself striding guard-fashion down the red hallway toward the head of the stairs at their far end. He had evidently forgotten that those stairs, and this hallway, had no earthly business being where they were. Certainly he had forgotten about the missing pistols. It was a strange relapse into professionalism on his part; probably he thought to halt whoever was coming up with some form of admonishment, perhaps to “stand back, please; stand away from the art.” Old habits die hard, after all. But this one died on his lips; for even before he’d reached the top of the stairs, he could see there was something not quite right with the person tottering up to meet him. Perhaps (as Mr. Woodwright thought in a confused flash) it was only the weight of the great muddy bundle he was laboring under, as he rounded the landing. But then the bundle rose with a wrenching motion; and Mr. Woodwright saw with horror that it was the topmost part of a figure, wrapped all over in muddy sacking that had torn apart at the bottom, revealing two black and desiccated legs. The figure had been stooping, but now straightened stiffly in the narrow stairwell, and turned its shrouded face up toward Mr. Woodwright, all the while rocking slowly back and forth on its spindly legs as though to regain its balance. This motion held Mr. Woodwright in a sort of nightmarish interest for some moments, until he was shocked out of it by the realization that it was struggling thus to right itself because its arms were gone.
At just that instant the figure resumed its ascent at a frightening speed, and Mr. Woodwright believes he heard a muffled, high-pitched cry of fury echo in the stairwell as he himself turned to run. But he was over the barrier, past his blinking companions and out of the museum in far too great a hurry to be sure.
* * *
All this Mr. Woodwright told me—and a very few others—when he left the museum soon thereafter. It was no use telling him that the room was no longer in the condition he’d described; he’d already made up his mind never again to go anywhere near it, or indeed to the museum in general. For someone as appreciative as he was of the rest of the collection, this was too grave a sentence to take lightly; so rather than argue it out with him, we let it drop.
Yet he must have known that nobody would quite believe him, at least not without some form of evidence; and so, some weeks later, a little envelope arrived in my mailbox. It was addressed to his friends from the museum, care of myself, and contained two folded slips of paper: one a photocopy of two pages from a book, the other a sheet of rather finer paper, with some writing scribbled on it. The photocopied excerpt was obviously from a newer historical text, though I have not yet determined which, and dealt with the German siege of Paris in the winter of 1870—a much nastier business than I’d known, short-lived as it was. During that attack the city froze over entirely, and its residents began to starve; having first eaten their dray horses and the city’s zoo animals, the Parisians turned to rats and other vermin for sustenance. Some, the text noted, went to direr lengths: one particularly ghastly passage (strongly underlined in Mr. Woodwright’s copy) cited the “theft and partial consumption of an adult corpse, taken fresh from a churchyard burial.”
The second page, as I say, was hand-written, or scribbled—in whose hand I cannot say, but I am sure it was not Mr. Woodwright’s. Prior to sharing it with my colleagues (all of whom have since quit the museum for their own reasons), I took care to have this page translated separately by a few disinterested French-speaking friends; each of whom independently deplored its fragmentary nature.
Having already ventured once on the French, I will here skip straight to the translation.
Father Brechard (it began),
You have our penitence; it is just as you said. We were savages—worse than beasts! But it was desperation that made us so. Perhaps you see that, as surely He sees, in Whose salvation we must henceforth place our trust. Yet now is no time for such sentiments. It is time for action. We learned you were in Bordeaux, and came as soon as we could; yet it has followed us here, the devil knows how. Please come to us on receipt of this note. We are confident you are the only one who can return it to peace, but will do our best to—
Many years ago there was published to great acclaim a volume of sentimental and self-congratulatory reminiscence of college days called My Harvard. This volume was followed by a second, no less successful, volume called My Yale. Where the series went thereafter I do not know; but it prompted me to write the following memoir of my own undergraduate experience, at a very different university.
It was in November, 1973, in Chicago, that my money ran out. It was not, by then, the only thing that had run out. After three years at the University I had lost a great deal of my self-esteem. Romantic illusions I had none; these came, oddly enough, several years later. (I should say that I write this memoir as a distraction from a hopeless and desolating passion.) But where I had once thought of myself as an intellectual I now realized that I was perfectly incapable of sustained, consecutive or significant thinking. Of course, no sort of thinking at all is required to keep up the role of intellectual, or so I know now; but back then, the great books that filled me with wonder and despair also kept me honest—honest enough, at least, to see that my talents, not to mention my interests, lay outside of scholarship and culture and thought. But where they lay, at age twenty I hardly knew.
Such disillusion is no doubt a fairly common college experience. But the disappointments and frustrations universally visited upon youth were always magnified on this particular campus, where Aristotle’s dictum, that learning is pain, was taken literally and indeed made the organizing principle of the entire curriculum. I once asked a young professor why the school had to be so brutal—why every one of his colleagues, and he himself, were such assiduous classroom sadists. “What is instructive is destructive,” he replied instantly, in what I now recognize as a characteristic manipulation of terms—and the truth. And he added, “The purpose of this college is to destroy the student.”
They were good at it. But they had help. The school was not only located in Chicago, which was bad enough, but on the South Side, and in the middle of a savage ghetto. Never once in four years were we free of the sense of impending and unavoidable crime, of hopeless social injustice, of irremediable racial hate. And the climate was ferocious. If, in an unguarded moment, you were unlucky enough to get chilled, chilled you remained for eight months. The food, too, was bad—starchy, greasy, pasty—whatever faults food can have; though on this topic I am no expert, having lost my appetite one day in a university coffee shop, and having never quite regained it. And worst of all there was nothing to do—as regards social activities, the great grey campus was as sepulchral as the Medieval quads on which it had been modeled. A waste of life is how it all strikes me now—indeed, as it struck me even then; and perhaps the point about the place is that there passing psychological states such as this took root and endured. Youth, of course, has no perspective; but that is why its misery, like its exaltation in love, is the keenest that can be; because the purest. At least I have never felt anything as real, as objectified and intense as the self-disgust that overwhelmed me that November, when, to cap all my misfortunes, I was left without a penny to my name.
Very simply, I had overspent. Life, “in guerdon of my wrongs,” gave me two good friends—poor but good, I should say, and I was the banker of our various extravagancies. As the years go on I find myself exaggerating our depravities, which might in all honesty be called innocent depravities, for, though depravities they certainly were, they were undertaken not out of perversity or mindlessness, but simply as a somewhat hysterical attempt to escape the pressures of our surroundings. In any event they were expensive, especially if one were paying the passage for three: rent, food, alcohol, drugs, and, as it all soured, bail money and bribes. And here I must say a surprising thing: I never grudged a penny of what I spent. I care much less for money now than almost everyone I meet, but then, if recollection serves me, I cared for it not at all. What amazes me is that I once possessed a virtue, and one that my later life has taught me to think the rarest in the world—generosity. I spent with an unearthly, even an angelic profusion; although, to balance the record, I must add that the sums, by today’s standard, were not terribly significant.
The upshot was, I had to get a job. My friends had both been working since they were freshmen, while I had devoted all of my days to my studies. Not without profit, not without loss: for I had gone pretty deeply into a few ancient languages and literatures, the kind of study the world usually denominates “useless” but which I found to be very useful indeed; but I had lost my adolescent sharpness of vision, so that I now wore thick glasses. It was the glasses, I think, that got me the best student job then available, as a janitor in the Anatomy Department, for it turned out that the professor who was doing the hiring had exactly the same kind of frames that I had, the clear pink plastic kind that are nowadays so popular but which, in 1973, were not only not popular but positively offbeat.
This was the best job, I say, because though a janitor one was not hired through the University Buildings and Grounds department, but by Anatomy itself, and this had several advantages. They paid more, and they treated you better. I was introduced to the faculty at one of their regular Friday cocktail hours as a “new member of the Department,” and this egalitarian spirit was by no means affected: I was granted all the privileges of the place, invited to all the parties, treated with the sincerest collegiality and actually rejoiced in as a fellow laborer in the old science—all this, and I knew absolutely nothing about the subject, and they knew I knew nothing! Even today (especially today) I am at a loss to explain the democracy of those anatomists. Perhaps it was their post-mortem perspective. But more to the point, perhaps, was the particular status of the department. Though highly enough regarded, it was still considered something of an intellectual backwater. Gross anatomy had for many years yielded the academic spotlight to microbiology, and the young scientific hotshots apparently shunned the descriptive science as one that had already been exhausted. And indeed, most of the professors were elderly, and a good number of them were women—souvenirs of a time when aspiring female doctors were routinely shunted into less scandalous intimacy with dead bodies.
The work itself consisted in distributing deliveries and moving things from one laboratory to another. I have never been very strong, and at the time I was on the verge of physical collapse, but the distinguished professors always cheerfully assisted me in my labors. It was not the sort of place, after all, where you wanted to drop things: you could never be sure what would come spilling out. My predecessor resigned, for example, when a jugful of camel embryos slipped through his fingers. It was best, all in all, to move discreetly and remain incurious—always draw the dolly right up to the counter, never enter a room without knocking first, and leave the cabinets and refrigerators undisturbed. Even so, it was inevitable that you came across a cadaver, or more likely a piece of one, lying on a dissecting table or patiently pickling in a glass jar. This was bad at first, but it usually made for good stories afterwards, and was, as I told myself, at least better than vivisection. Gradually I took a kind of pride in my unflappability, though in truth loading a dolly was loading a dolly, whether the shipment was towels or, as was more frequently the case at Anatomy, human heads.
I was at one of the Friday gatherings that I first really talked to Noel Swedberg. In my two months in the Department I had seen him nearly every day, or rather heard him, for in the old stone building his laughter carried whole floors. I had encountered him directly only once before, when I was carrying a human head through one of the dark back corridors. “What have we here?” he asked drily, and proceeded to scrutinize the poor specimen with such solemnity that I half-thought he was going to extract it from its formaldehyde bath by its hair, and address it poetically. But he was mainly interested in the necrosis of the gums—he was a historian of medicine, and the subject of his recently completed doctoral dissertation had been the development of modern dental equipment. I think he hung around Anatomy merely out of love of the macabre. Nowadays I would be amused or disgusted by the human content of such enthusiasm, but back then I had enough purely intellectual curiosity to respect him for his devotion. And the history of medicine was, at that time, a truly fashionable subject, attracting semiologists, hermaneuticians and other intellectual agilists, and this gave him, in that small world at least, a bit of cachet. Certainly there was nothing prepossessing about his appearance: tall, gaunt, buck-toothed and hook-nosed. By the way, that description can stand for me, too—Swedberg and I looked a lot alike, and that, perhaps, was why we liked each other so well at that cocktail party, or sherry hour, to give it its official title, though no one was drinking sherry. In any event he brought a discussion of something or other (it was customary at Chicago to show off one’s deep knowledge of fields not one’s own, and this one, as far as I recall, belonged to neither of us, though from Swedberg’s look of self-contentment I think he thought that it was mine) to a rather inconsequential conclusion.
“So,” he said, “I hear you’re not squeamish.”
I disguised it pretty well, I replied.
“How would you like to work for me?”
“Doing what, exactly?”
“Well, I’ve got an appointment here,” he said, avoiding my eyes in what I took to be a very manful effort at modesty. Here, of course, would mean Chicago, and an appointment, coming so soon after completing his dissertation, was a remarkable achievement. It meant he must be “pretty good,” as we said, for it was a point of pride among us undergraduates never to grant that a graduate student could ever be much more than that. “There’s teaching, of course,” he went on, “but also a curatorship, and I need somebody to help me put the museum together. Right now it’s all in boxes.”
I remembered those boxes form an article in the campus paper. They were part of what was known as the Alberhay, an enormous bequest of money and materials relating to the history of medicine. The centerpiece, however, was not the museum, the housing and display of which, though a prime condition of Dr. Alberhay’s will, were generally viewed as an irrelevant burden. The real thing was the Alberhay Library, unquestionably the largest and finest collection of books and manuscripts pertaining to medical history in the world. So Swedberg had a reason for his modesty: I could guess that nobody in his department wanted the trouble of uncasing and mounting a few thousand old stethoscopes and scalpels, and so the job was passed to the younger man. Certainly the University was treating the old artifacts slightingly, burying them in a back room at the old Anthropological Museum, a building, as far as I knew, no one ever entered and which, in fact, was kept locked. Probably the stuffed monkeys and ratty headdresses with which student imagination had peopled the place had been shifted to make room for the old bones.
Well, I took the gig; it paid double my Anatomy wages, and ten dollars an hour was pretty good money in 1973—about as much as I make now, in fact. Besides, it was the first job I had ever been offered, that is without having first had to beg for it, and it went to my head. I am still given to flights of enthusiasm, and I still believe that Opportunity, with signs and portents, will someday change my life, so I find it hard to blame my younger self for turning a minor change of employment into a whole set of career plans. “Career”—how I hate that word now! But I didn’t hate it then: I was afraid of it.
I met Swedberg early the next day. He gave me a key to the building, and one to the Museum room, as we passed down the long corridor under a row of yellowed institutional hanging lamps. The room itself was an archaic affair, with a U-shaped gallery, through which we entered, running above a large wooden square. The two levels were connected by a tight spiral staircase, and the whole place pervaded by a sense of transition and unease. The glass cases, which ran floor to ceiling, were not merely empty but absolutely vacant, and I might have said resentful, for the fine old room had evidently been out of use for decades, and had probably come to consider itself no longer a museum but a monument to museology, or at least an artifact in its own right, and thus deserving of a few more centuries of undisturbed repose. I smiled at its sullenness, but the normally equitable Swedberg seemed irritated and huffy, the effect, no doubt, of the numerous old trunks and boxes that slept in the pit, which to him represented (as I thought then) a couple of years’ drudgery.
In any even the new curator had his museum all planned out, and the first few mornings’ work was to bring each trunk opposite the appropriate cabinet. Finally they all stood face to face, and eyed each other with what seemed to me a kind of complicity. And I was right; for as the Alberhay began to emerge piecemeal from its coffins, the artifacts turned out to have something of the intractable qualities of the double room.
“Just where do you suppose they got all this junk?” I asked one morning as I put the final touches on a collection of things relating to famous patients—a laryngeal mirror from a President’s secret operation, a Supreme Court Justice’s vesicle calculi, and so on.
“It’s an uneven collection I grant you,” replied Swedberg, as he crinkled his nose over a display of Roman, Greek and Assyrian paraphernalia. “It almost makes you believe the old story.”
“And what’s that?”
“Well, the Alberhays were an old Sephardic family—I say ‘were’ because they’re extinct now, that’s how we got the Library—and it’s said of them, or they say of themselves—said, I mean—that they had been doctors for two thousand years or more—a hundred unbroken generations of doctors.”
“Is it true?”
“Well, we do know of them practicing medicine in Cairo around 1150; then they turn up in Grenada, went to Venice at the expulsion, and ended up in Philadelphia by 1700.”
This sounded like a joke. But no, Swedberg explained, Philadelphia had long been one of the most distinguished medical centers in the world, and the Alberhays were famous there. “So that’s nine hundred years of practicing medicine,” he concluded.
“So you’re saying all this stuff is from their own practice—a family collection?”
“It’s supposed to be.”
I returned to my work with a new respect for the objects; they now seemed to testify to a noble, singleminded pursuit, carried on despite the vagaries and oppressions of centuries, or millennia, rather, since some of the objects went back pretty far.
“What do you make of these?”
Swedberg was staring at six shallow ceramic platters that he had carefully fished out of a cylindrical black box.
“Bleeding bowls?” I asked.
“Evidently, but they’re a lot different from the other ones in the collection.”
And so they were. The thirty bleeding bowls we had already mounted were mostly Eighteenth Century work, of variegated shape and refined glazes, often cheerfully decorated with pastoral scenes and floral patterns. This juxtaposition of ornament and purpose was clear enough proof that the Enlightenment way of thinking was not ours, and not enlightened—for a bleeding bowl was a bowl into which someone was bled, nothing more. By contrast these six bowls were primitive—dull, faded surfaces; overlarge; brittle. And the curious outlines of orange and green, now barely visible, seemed more like hasty and unsure markings than deliberate ornamentation:
“Cycladic,” I said.
“Hardly. But they do look old.”
And with that we left them lying on the glass counter. Real work awaited us. For the human specimens we now began unpacking were the true core of the Alberhay. And, as we discovered, the relatively benign pieces of medical equipment with which we had filled the gallery were hardly characteristic of the whole collection.
For in truth it was a museum of the incurably monstrous. Every catastrophe that could blast and distort the human figure was here: hydroencephalic heads; lungs rotted with mustard gas, still coated in a filthy brown scum; spines twisted into knots by Pott’s disease; cephalothoropagus monosymmetros, that is a double monster; an entire bleached skeleton showing the ravages of myositis ossificans progressiva, from which the ossified muscles hung like handkerchiefs; a brown lacquered osteosarcoma of the tibia, larger than a football.
Unloading these things made for depressing work—weeks of it. But the horrors themselves might have been borne, had it not been for a certain clinical laconism that marked the style of the index cards that accompanied each specimen: “hand of William Green, tuberculated leper;” “skeleton of a female. Result of tight lacing;” “necrosis of the face. From a case of lupus;” “skull showing syphilitic caries of the entire vault.” Even the normal, I discovered, could be raised to a kind of monstrosity by this mode of presentation. The Alberhay Skull Collection, for example, which purported to show facial variation, was indexed with comments such as these: “Ladislaw Czaky—cut his throat because of extreme poverty;” “Krista Braun—died of puerperal fever at Fiume;” “William Schley—hung himself.” Died of cholera in Trieste—died of small pox—committed suicide by potassium cyanide—of what possible use was such information? The fact that the skulls were skulls was enough to establish that the persons were dead. And how they died seemed to have very little to do with facial variation.
Indeed, as Swedberg and I penetrated deeper into the Alberhay, often stopping to read each other some particularly noisome caption (“avulsion of the finger”), I began to suspect that behind the laconism of the anonymous cataloguer, or cataloguers, lay levity, and behind that an almost inconceivable cruelty. Occasionally this would reveal itself in some vivid expression, or experiment. “Paget’s Disease of the skull is particularly striking by virtue of the irregular thickening of the skull,” read one card, “but the bone can be sliced by a knife, and the calvarium, when filled with water, leaks like a sieve.” But mostly the cruelty was present in the fact of the collection itself. Why gather these things? Their incredible multiplicity seemed to oppose any therapeutic attitude. And indeed, when, while mounting a two-foot-long ovarian cyst (“weight of liquid contents: 70 lbs.”), I joked that it was the doctor who missed the cyst and not the cyst itself that belonged in a museum, Swedberg informed me that the Alberhays, in Philadelphia at least, were famous advocates of therapeutic nihilism, a strange theory of medicine in which treatment was avoided because it interfered with diagnosis. But this attitude, I thought, itself needed explanation.
Such unpacking was the work of weeks, as I said, and naturally enough had a cumulative effect on both of us. Conversation all but stopped, and gave way, at least in my case, to a sort of furious puzzlement. First I smiled at the frankness; then I pitied the victims; then I speculated about the doctors; and at last I arrived where the collection wanted me to arrive, at an ultimate thing. For the museum seemed designed to raise the question, Ubi malum? Whence cometh evil? Or, to put it another way, how can such suffering exist? This is in one form or another the great theodical question, the rock equally of faith and denial, and if I raised it then it wasn’t because I had a particularly religious turn of mind, but simply because the specimens represented the first real suffering I had ever seen, even if it was seen, or perhaps precisely because it had to be seen, in the mind’s eye. Most of the misery we come into contact with, after all, is not only explicable but immediately so. Poverty, violence, hatred and the rest are social products. But disease and distortion and deformity and monstrosity are another business altogether, and in the Alberhay these were so allied to the grotesque as to countenance speculation that some horrible demon was still sporting his way through the world, killing us for fun. And if that were true, it was only natural to ask, how did he get here and who allowed him to go on?
No, such a museum should not exist, I finally concluded one morning in late April as I made my way to class. The short Chicago spring had come at last, and with it the eruption of student life, as busy and brief as a mayfly’s. Everywhere on the Quads students sprawled in the strong sunlight. Dogs barked; Frisbees flew; the jingle of an ice-cream truck played far off. To me, with just a Bachelor’s thesis to refine, May meant graduation and release. A good time to be happy! But as I paused there in the circular drive that marked the exact center of the campus my thoughts stood resolutely in the cold shade. Not only shouldn’t one go to such a museum, or unpack it, or accept it as a bequest, or house it, I thought; it simply should not be allowed to exist. But I had another thought too: that if it had to exist, then there was no better place for it than the University of Chicago. For that University was in many respects a place of death. The atomic bomb had been invented there, and the monument that marked the spot, half mushroom cloud and half skull, dominated the neighborhood, lending its hollow sockets to doomed lovers. Then there were the old rumors about the suicide pact across the Midway, where the whole floor of a dormitory slit their throats one warm October night—legend perhaps, but containing the vrai verite. And there were the Dioscuri of the campus, Leopold and Loeb, the torture murderers with whom every student at the University of Chicago perforce shared an alma mater. True, those two only killed one person, a pitiful account by today’s standards; but murders have a certain period gruesomeness; and the old cars, old suits and old rhetoric by which their crime is remembered give it a ghastliness beyond the reach of contemporary butcheries. And perhaps the glamour of the Alberhay was owing to something of the same cause. Beyond a few irremediable teratoids that stood ironically outside of all time, the museum had almost nothing from our own age of medical progress, and the spirit of accumulation that marked the place, random and wayward, in fact recalled the principle-less museums of earlier centuries. And this indeed made the whole thing worse: for the illusion of total incurability was maintained throughout. Or was it the modern illusion of total curability that made me think so? Perhaps the point of the collection was to raise that one corrosive question. For if the Alberhay was a period piece, its period was the whole of human history.
I didn’t go to class that morning. Nor did I go to work till late that afternoon. But in the end I went. My aversion to the Alberhay having reached bottom, so too did my attraction to the place reach its peak. I think now that I knew something was wrong the moment I entered the building. There was a faint smell of formaldehyde in the cold air. But the shock was reserved for the museum itself. The room had often struck me as being a kind of old photograph, what with the silvered glass, dark wood, grey light and white bones; but as I stood there in the gallery doorway I saw that into the regular sepia tones a color had intruded; and the color was blood. There was blood everywhere—on the cabinets, pooled on the rug, filling the bowls—and when I brought myself to look down into the pit I saw the long body of Noel Swedberg lying sprawled among the rest of the monstered dead.
I made myself run down the spiral staircase. My legs were like cold dough and as I stumbled down my right temple struck against one of the upper stairs. The pounding that momently broke out there made me think the whole room had acquired a dizzy, exultant heartbeat. My haste, in any event, was quite futile. Swedberg was entirely, and even elaborately, dead. He had slashed his wrists with the old Roman scalpel that lay nearby; but in the enthusiasm of his desperation even the gushing of those arteries had proved too slow, and he had sawed through his own neck, and with such spasmodic vigor that now only the bone kept the head attached to the trunk. Whatever gash he had inflicted there had evidently been worsened by his fall over the gallery railing, for he had come down chin first into our largest display case, shattering the glass and sending the exhibits scattering. The leprous hand lay exposed to the air next to his own. Our Siamese twin embryo was at my feet.
I went back to the staircase and sat down. I think I passed out; in any event it was some minutes before I called the campus police, and some hours before I was released from the scene. I had very little to contribute to their investigation. No, I hadn’t known Swedberg personally. No, he showed no signs of any special depression. No, I had no idea why he had done it. As far as I could see his action had no explanation; perhaps it needed none.
That night I got drunk. It seemed like the right thing to do; besides, alcohol had a mystique for me in those days, by which it put everything into an intelligible context. Swedberg’s suicide seemed comprehensible because getting drunk over it seemed comprehensible; it all seemed like part of a great tradition. I drank a lot then anyway, though it took me even longer than it does now to recover. I bade farewell to this particular hangover two days later, savoring its departure while sipping tea from a Styrofoam cup in one of the campus coffee shops, a narrow, low, noisy, chaotic student hangout where they allowed you to reuse your tea bag as many times as you could stand to. This economy appealed to me, even though tea usually made me sick to my stomach.
It was not the sort of place where one expected to run into Professor Trytomis. Or, for that matter, any professor, except the one or two pool sharks who occasionally used the tables downstairs. The Department of Greek, to which Trytomis belonged, made few concessions to students anyway; they taught that excruciating and necessary subject at such a killing pace that in my year only two of sixty-five students stuck out the ten-week introductory course. I was one of them, and how I did it I don’t know; I have a very precarious talent for languages, Indo-European languages at least, and I can only attribute my success in the Greek course to the enthusiasm I had as a freshman, which I must say vanished soon after. In any event knowing Greek gave me a little cachet, for it was the snob language of the University, and professors in all fields always got around to asking you if you knew it, and it was a pleasant bit of revenge to say yes. I wouldn’t have said it to Trytomis, though; none of the Greek students would have; for he was reputed to know more Greek than anyone, anywhere, ever. Certainly his course offerings bore this out. His main subject was Byzantine Greek, and his approach fabulously obscure and technical. Every quarter he remorselessly announced what he would be teaching, and his course descriptions were always the most elaborate in the catalogue, but he never actually allowed anyone to study with him. Teachers who didn’t teach were a frequent enough occurrence at Chicago, but few made such a masquerade of it as this. That semester, for example, he had offered the Text of Proclus, and on a dare one advanced graduate student signed up; but he dropped out after the required half-hour interview with the professor, who managed to make it clear, despite the arid civility said to be his custom, that the student wasn’t quite ready to study with him, and wouldn’t be in a hundred years.
Trytomis rarely came to campus; he had been pointed out to me once in a hallway, which was why I recognized him now, though to be sure he was a perfect stick-out among the dozing, disillusioned young—six and a half feet tall, powerful frame, orange-yellow skin stretched tightly over immense hands and bald head. He took no trouble to hide his disgust with the coffee shop, and watching him maneuver haughtily through the scattered chairs and long tables little inclined me to hide mine. I was staring into my grey tea when I noticed that he had stopped at my table.
I looked up then.
“Allow me to join you.”
Sitting down he was far more overbearing. The impression of fastidious reserve disappeared, replaced by an almost sinister emanation of will. Something I have never lost is my shyness; and now I could almost feel my voice disappear in my throat.
“I am Trytomis. We have never met.”
“No,” I replied.
“No, we haven’t.”
“I am trustee to the Alberhay Bequest, and I must know whether you intend to continue your work in the museum.”
I hesitated then; it was simply not something I had given any thought to. I had not consciously believed that the whole machine would stop with Swedberg’s death, but I realize now that I had expected it to slow down enough for me to be graduated and gone by the time such a small matter as my assistance came to be considered. But disaster was so familiar a thing at the school that the mechanism of cover-up was always limber; the suicide had gone unreported on and off campus, and perhaps I was being pressed back into service merely to maintain the unbroken surface of normality.
“Yes, I’ll continue,” I said at last, and this time Trytomis inclined his great head to pick up my near whispers.
“Very well. I have had the mess cleaned up and the specimens returned to their jars. You need only continue the mounting. I believe the late Doctor made his plans clear to you? You may resume tomorrow.”
And with that he left. It took me a few minutes to get over this encounter—my hands were shaking—and only then did I question my decision. It seemed indecent to carry on as if Swedberg had not gashed himself to death two days earlier. But I knew even then that this reservation came from cold moral considerations, and not from any real depth of feeling. Despite starting out bravely, my relations with Swedberg had never progressed very far toward intimacy. What’s more, I felt insulted by his suicide—as if he had been keeping secrets. Only when I resolved the dilemma in this peevish way did it strike me that Trytomis was a rather odd choice to direct the Alberhay. As far as I knew he was not a medical historian or bibliographer. But it was never wise to underestimate the learning of such a man. And besides, the library was said to be mostly Greek.
The Alberhay had indeed been restored to order by the time I returned the next day. Still, I hesitated before plunging into what little work remained. Without the presence of another human being the place seemed even more pregnant than before—the room more contemptuous, the collections more pertinacious in raising their malignant questions. And I had the uncomfortable feeling that empty rooms can sometimes give, that my blundering entrance had interrupted something. I lingered on the gallery, slowly going over the cases of old medical equipment, which were in any case less hideous than what awaited me in the pit. They were horrible enough, though. Perhaps there is no word in the language, I thought, more sinister than “instrument.” Indeed, the whole nomenclature of the displays filled me with disgust and a sense of the bleakness of things—trephines, exfoliators, clumsy lead holders “for applying radium beneath the eyelid”—the old curettes and perforators from Pompeii—the very jagged scalpel Swedberg had used, and which I now hefted idly in my hand. But my attention was arrested by the six old bleeding bowls that still lay placidly on the counter. When I had last seen them they were filled with Swedberg’s blood—some kind of dire joke, I had thought—but as I examined them now, it became clear that their bath had wrought changes in them. The curious patterns were far more boldly defined; and the colors, once so faded, were vibrant and clashing, so that they seemed to wriggle and pulse. I outlined the patterns once with my finger. The glazes seemed almost to grow moist beneath my touch.
The fountain of blood that shot from my right wrist was not what I remember expecting at all. It came out very slowly, as if pulled erect by a string, like a streamer. I was annoyed, too, at having overshot the target. I directed the left wrist somewhat better. But it was all too slow. It is all going too slowly, I thought; why is it all going so slowly? I believe the knife was on its way to my throat when a giant yellow hand closed on mine, and I felt myself wrenched back from the gallery railing. Just before I fainted I looked up and saw Trytomis’s face registering what even at that juncture I knew to be nothing at all. But he bent his ear to my lips.
“Letters,” I said, and then I said no more.
They let me out of the hospital ten days later. I mentioned that cover-ups were a regular thing on this campus, and this one proceeded effortlessly—I was pleased, in fact, to be at the center of it, and thus relieved of any real inquiry. Everyone played their part consummately—the Italian Department, in accepting my thesis draft as final, and even graduating me with honors; Trytomis, who visited me on behalf of the Bequest, only to be turned away by my delirious condition. But my own performance was the best. I told the psychiatrist exactly what he expected to hear, and did it so naturally that I wondered whether the only thing I had learned at that school, or was taught there, was how to lie. I had been depressed for months, I said; had a horror of completing my studies, and so had thrown myself into various student jobs; was in terror of leaving the familiar campus and plunging into the alien and hostile world; and so on. I broke down once or twice during the interviews, and that loaned some credibility to my tale. The psychiatrist nodded hurriedly at each of my revelations. It was a familiar condition in graduating seniors, he said. And he pronounced his diagnosis: suicidal depression caused by separation anxiety, and aggravated by alcoholic malnutrition.
I took my bandaged wrists to Trytomis’s apartment. He lived, of course, in one of the better buildings in the neighborhood, literally across the railroad tracks and thus near the Lake. His door was opened by a woman, which surprised me. But she showed me to the professor’s study, predictably book-lined and dark. Trytomis rose gigantically from his desk and showed me to a chair.
“Marta, a glass of water for the young man.”
She returned with it a minute later, and I took it clumsily between my palms. Then she left us alone.
“So,” Trytomis began, “you have come to thank me for saving your life.”
“Having first risked it,” I replied.
“Yes. But I wanted to see. Many years ago I had obtained permission to use the Alberhays’ library, and I was struck by the high proportion of questionable materials included among the more traditional tomes. In certain circles, you see, the family’s reputation was not good.” He did not say what circles these were.
“The bowls,” I said. “Who made them?”
“Oh, they are terrifically ancient. But I am almost certain that they are Antiochene, from the Fourth Century B.C. at the latest. I realize now that the name Alberhay in this case is a corruption of ‘bar gera’—the ‘al’ is an Arabic prefix—itself a corruption of ‘egara’. That is the Syriac for ‘rooftop’.”
This seemed a gigantic revelation; and it was only several years later that I discovered that the “corruption” spoken of here (really a matter of apocopation and elision) is quite impossible. There are other problems with this interpretation, too, as you will see, but I still think it is essentially correct—the Alberhays had been doctors for twenty-five hundred years in order to appease the bowls.
“But come,” Trytomis said, rising. “I wish to ask you a question.”
He led me intoa small room adjoining the study. It was, I saw, a kind of museum in its own right, crawling with artifacts of malign appearance, and God knows what function. And there, in a glass case, securely locked, were the six bleeding bowls of the Alberhay Museum.
“They are quite harmless here,” he said.
“So they are,” I replied.
He looked at me closely. “Do you remember what you said to me before you fainted that day?”
He paused, considering. And then he asked, “Do you know Greek?”
I couldn’t help it; I laughed. And I kept laughing. To hear that familiar, pedantic question in these circumstances filled me with endless hilarity. I shook my sides; I roared; I realized in a flash that whatever happens is redeemed by the truth it contains. I think he thought I was becoming hysterical, for he asked me sharply, “What do the letters say?”
“σηψιδι,” I replied, still laughing.
“Yes, ‘To the Unclean One,’ is perhaps the best translation. This is my reason for deriving the old Syriac word ‘egara’ from the word ‘Alberhay.’ In old Syria demons were worshipped on the flat roofs of houses, and it seems that they were most powerful at the turn of the month.”
“Very well,” I replied, taking on unconsciously some of his pedantic tone, “but let us do what Swedberg undoubtedly did just before he died—or rather, let us not do it. Switch these bowls here and give this one a quarter twist down. What do you have then?”
He was silent for some minutes. “My God!” he breathed at last. “διψωσι.”
“Yes,” I said. “‘They thirst’.”
Arnold Klein – VERSE LETTER 1: TO MK
Arnold Klein – VERSE LETTER 2: TO JC/EMH
Arnold Klein – VERSE LETTER 3: TO MK
Arnold Klein – VERSE LETTER 4: TO MK
Arnold Klein – FROM MISCELLANEOUS LOVE POEMS