Joyce: “How could the idealist Hume write a history?”Beckett: “A history of representations.”
The world of invisible death closes
In, day by day. Our calendar pages
Fall from their ringed spine like leaves in autumn,
And reading the newspaper this morning
Forces one to suspend one’s disbelief
In absolute extinction, chaos, hell,
The surreal too-real of our fallenness.
I can’t complain.
After breakfast, look up:
The sky this morning is a terror, dark
And hugely fuming, even as the sun
Fills each cloud to the brim with quicksilver.
Our first stop is the Louvre, where we had planned
To loiter out the swarm of like minds; now
In momentary panic acquiesce,
As the huge wind blows and lightning misfires,
To the long line down and out, there to take
Our refuge in the world’s great ark of art.
“May our young eyes give life to the old works,
May the great works reanimate our eyes,”
Murmurs my friend with gravest irony.
So through that famous lucid pyramid
We snake the wily escalators down
More like genteel grave robbers, it may be,
Than the pilgrim I fancied myself then,
Pledged to a place where the dead shall be raised
As art, like Ra on the sun’s barque dayward.
I elect, almost arbitrarily,
Kern’s enfant endormi as the genius
Of our tour. Supple with life but bone-pale,
The babe’s eyes are closed to his own beauty;
No dreams beautify his ivory sleep.
Lithe fractures have broken out upon him
As though his body wept black tears for time.
He is the soul, laurelled far in advance
Of accomplishment, exhausted by flesh,
The flesh’s burdens, and by his own power,
Symbolized by a torch the babe let slip
Down about his heels, like an ice cream cone,
To burn with a pale fire as chill as he.
More awake than our babe, its sockets wide,
Enthroned high upon an opaque hourglass
Whose sands, for all we know, may have buried
Already things to come and bottomed out,
Is marmoreal death, grinning to usurp
The kingdom of the soul yet to be built.
My friend coughs, lest we linger here all day
With the sleeping babe, death alert. Onward.
Our tour begins where history begins,
With a man in seizure of a woman:
Giambologna’s Nessus and Deianira.
He, centaur frozen in mad headlong plunge
With forearms bigger than the maiden’s neck,
Has taken her from behind and slung her
Over the buoyant rondure of his back,
And unless she ride him the two seem doomed
To careen momentously loose and fall.
And everywhere the fall of man plays out.
For instance: a heroic tapestry
That has as its subject aggrandizement
Of so squalid a thing as apes at war:
Scipio in blue and starry mantle
Rouses his men against elephantine
Carthage. Miraculous textile, so gay
In periwinkles and rooster-comb reds,
What pride in execution, golden-rich,
The bristling spears, prodigious elephants,
Men and horses in postures cocked and slain—
What pride taken in depicting horrors
Grandly. Just look at this old silverback
Caught by surprise as a mercenary
Saws at the heroic meat of his neck
The better to displace his noble head;
While on the margins putti frolic spry,
Diddling and pissing in cute little arcs.
(This tapestry reproduces one made
For François I, later liquidated
After the Revolution and then burnt
To expose for readier recovery
All the precious metals interwoven.)
Already glutted, we yet soldier on
Through galleries of pomp and pompous war,
Gaudy rowdy bawdy stupefaction:
Napoleon III’s apartment—the N
Embroidered on his throne can leave no doubt—
In which Egypt’s obelisks have been Frenched;
Decadent plates on which sprawl, creep, rot, ooze
Glazed gray snakes and fish and snails and insects,
So that aristocrats can mock how far
They’ve risen above the natural garbage,
And tickle their dulled and rheumy senses;
Guns, swords, and swords to which guns are affixed;
Armor so rich as to promise ransom
Richer… One grows tired of such bric-a-brac,
Though we’re enmazed and lost among the stuff—
Until a stairway surprises us out
To where the great Winged Victory presides.
Astonishing. She strides the blast, goddess
Of the event that will define the world,
An ecstasy, a fortification.
Turned against the past, she alone accounts
Her victory fought and won that shall be,
Perhaps, no more than cause of future woe.
We love her: how the crazy strength of the wind
Materializes in her drapery,
Here slipstreamed to a well-wrought blade and there
Impressed almost sheer against her navel,
Even as her stripped thigh shows strength greater
And those wings most which are her virtue spread
To brave the dark caprices of the sky.
The pity of it is, she strides headlong
Though headless, as though she were reason pure
Of free will, necessity her sole guide
Through that infinitude of hurricanes; lost,
Who sees no object worthy of surprise,
Nor what distinguishes her fate from death.
The stony prow where she has mastery
May even now lie wrecked in the Aegean,
For all this proud confused subangel knows.
My friend peeps behind her wings and makes out
Reinforcements holding her together,
As if all we could know of victory
Were rigged, cobbled from disintegration,
A fond recovery of all that’s failed.
This is the tragedy of Grecian form:
That essence, once thought to be eternal,
Should merely be a haunted gesture toward
Those local marvels which the stone forgot.
We mosey; the accomplished centuries
We fritter through in seconds, indulging
The suave privilege of retrospection,
Sure to miss a thousand thousand glories
Only to make much of the few we catch.
Goodbye to the consummate forms of Greece,
And hello to the bright infinity
Of longing which the Christian painters worked.
If for Herodotus the rape of Io
Sets the dismal world spinning through cycles
Of outrage, war, victory, lapse, outrage,
Here in Domedel’s Muerte de Abel
We see a comic counter-history
Commence, in deep self-consciousness of sin.
Abel is dead, his red hair blood-reddened,
Laid out upon his mother’s smocked limp lap
Like a husk, insubstantial but rigid.
Elfin Eve laments, while upright Adam,
Beggar with sad eyes, hooked nose, frowzy locks,
Indexes all the evidence of this,
The blood engendered by his bloodless crime:
A son slain, an ass’s jaw the weapon;
Cain in the background, just a dark brown blot
(Perspectival play has made the open
Stony place where he stands into a tomb);
While ensconced amid the silver linings
Of a rent stormcloud, God sits in judgment
With the bubble of the world at his knee.
Strange, but Adam’s face is at once surprised,
Resigned and entreating… It would be rude
To suggest, yet I can’t escape the thought,
That he looks like a carnival barker
Who makes his living by the show of death.
I suppose he perceives, where we cannot,
The impress of divine wit in bloodshed,
A foretwinkle in this first corpse of Christ’s,
Whereby we were absolved of history.
In the paintings of Madonna and Child,
Poor Mary has been gussied up for court,
Variably sweet, haughty, righteous, simpering,
While we become convinced few old masters
Have ever seen a baby in the flesh.
The divine health of their wee Jesuses
Fat rolls ridiculously signify,
Or else He bears ridiculous faces,
Coy cupid’s, those of doctors of the Church
Who’ve been perversely rejuvenated
(Sad, that Kern’s sleepy death-doomed babe should have
More life in it than He who is the life).
One exception: de Modena’s picture
Of the Child suckling at Mother’s breast,
Necklaced with a twig of ruddy coral
That symbolizes His salvific blood.
What we like is that He holds His wee foot
As some babies really do when learning
Their feet exist before they see their feet.
My friend tells me that this is a lesson
In object permanence—but only He
Learned the lesson true, for His foot alone
Is truly permanent, while ours are dust,
And, saith God, “unto dust shalt thou return.”
But soon these gilt pictures of lifegiving
Go dark. She who gave Him life mourns life’s loss—
No, that we should have tried to kill our God
She mourns, for God is our eternal life.
Christ has survived—positively flourished—
Through a thousand tortuous crucifixions
Suffered at the hands of pious painters.
My friend’s favorite is El Greco’s, raw, clear,
Where “everyone looks like they’re on the cross.”
I’m struck by Rosso’s Pieta: Jesus
Swims in shadow, or is scorched by shadow,
Like the soot habitual campfires conduct
Up the flues of canyon walls in soft stains:
“And there was darkness over all the earth.”
He is as long as his shadow would be
At Nones, an agony gigantic,
And we believe His body in dimension
To be a man’s, only because He’s curled.
Tragic, all too tragic for salvation:
The personal tragedy of a great
But humanly little soul, stains the work
Of the high impersonal comedy—
Rosso, whose hair was sun-red like his Christ’s,
And who killed himself, so Vasari says,
Soon after finishing his Pieta.
But now we come, as all who come here must,
To stranger things, out of the eternal light
And into darkness visible, the hall
Of mirrors, ignis fatuus, lurid time;
Now we come to the great room where great crowds
May idolize a little scene from the pit,
“Older than the rocks,” yet of our fallen days.
My friend and I can only see her fame
When we come in, for the crowd entombs her,
So many shutters shuddering to take
Photographs already superfluous.
The crowd surges forward, chatty, heedless—
“She’s smaller than I thought,” a woman says,
To which her masterful companion tweets,
“Well I knew she’d be small, so she seems big”—
Only for her to strike us like a planet.
We stand encircled by her black magic,
Eyes enslaved, what souls we had turned to stone
By monstrous inviolable mystery.
She is worldly at first, charming and pleased
By something subtle, all hers, hers alone:
She wants us to want her, and we oblige,
Interested in some lurid gossip
About the Borgias, say, some high intrigue.
But then we notice that things aren’t quite right.
Look at that dusty road among the hills:
Whence it comes her shadowy silks conceal,
And sinuously it goes like hookah smoke
Into a lake where it falls off, vanished,
As though all roads lead nowhere or to her.
The air is sour as a tomb’s, and the light dead
As though all the scene were underwater.
In perspective the far-off greenery
Spore-rampant, dwarfs the nearer brimstone hills,
Supernaturally enormous, as though
Nothing were in perspective true, or else
The swamp behind were its own evil world,
Hallucinogenic, mad, encroaching,
Apart from ours and yet immanent.
The lady’s eyes, so dry and fleshy, look
Not at us but at something behind us,
Which we are heedless of, or would not see
For terror, or are forbidden to see.
What we do see is flesh that seems alive
Only because we assume the lady is.
Queen of the zombie light, sphinx whose riddle
Is that there is no riddle but thinking
Makes it so, like the spider she’s drugged us
So that her dead flesh may feed vampiric
On our numbed gaze. Her molecules have drunk
Passions down to secrecy, horrors too,
Read of, whispered, witnessed, self-inflicted,
So that her scales, each ripe with experience
To rotting, green with jealousy at all
She has already been, a crypt of selves,
Distilled perfume of the carrion flower.
And this vaporous pagan smiles who knows
Our world to be eternal, yet also
A nowhere from nowhere and to nowhere,
All wine and fire and gibbering and crypts:
“If God were not, I could be; here I am,”
Her smile says with crooked boundless freedom.
All of Leonardo’s science of perspective
And sfumato, raison d’être and the block
To his art, her very being annuls
As vanity before the unconquered fog.
And here we are, crowding in her chamber,
Replicating her in us, the virus
Of her fatal smile… Better this way,
Perhaps, to make her great monstrosity
Cliché, a vaccine against her freedom
In which science breaks and art turns to nightmare
Amazing. In her triumph, the lady dies.
Enough. Like bumblebees which have wiggled
Their saddlebags full of gold, and wobble,
We have the stuff of honey in us now,
And the milk of paradise. It’s lunchtime.
So we go—past Arcimboldi’s portraits
Of fruits and warty vegetables bewitched
To men, past smartly dressed French girls who stand
Before a mirror and with crazy faith
In their own beauty snap duck-faced selfies—
From the pyramid of art to arise
Back into the disintegrating world.