Because I don’t care what anyone says or how often or winningly they say it: no one will ever, ever be able to persuade me that life is some awesome, rewarding treat. Because, here’s the truth: life is a catastrophe. The basic fact of existence – of walking around trying to feed ourselves and find friends and whatever else we do – is a catastrophe. Forget all this ridiculous ‘Our Town’ nonsense everyone talks: the miracle of a newborn babe, the joy of one simple blossom, Life You Are Too Wonderful To Grasp, &c. For me – and I’ll keep repeating it doggedly till I die, till I fall over on my ungrateful nihilistic face and am too weak to say it: better never born, than born into this cesspool. Sinkhole of hospital beds, coffins, and broken hearts. No release, no appeal, no “do-overs” to employ a favored phrase of Xandra’s, no way forward but age and loss, and no way out but death.
Putting your time in at the office; dutifully spawning your two point five; smiling politely at your retirement party; then chewing on your bedsheet and choking on your canned peaches at the nursing home. It was better never to have been born-never to have wanted anything, never to have hoped for anything.
Whenever you see flies or insects in a still life—a wilted petal, a black spot on the apple—the painter is giving you a secret message. He’s telling you that living things don’t last—it’s all temporary. Death in life. That’s why they’re called natures mortes. Maybe you don’t see it at first with all the beauty and bloom, the little speck of rot. But if you look closer—there it is.
What are the dead, anyway, but waves and energy? Light shining from a dead star?That, by the way, is a phrase of Julian's. I remember it from a lecture of his on the Iliad, when Patroklos appears to Achilles in a dream. There is a very moving passage where Achilles overjoyed at the sight of the apparition – tries to throw his arms around the ghost of his old friend, and it vanishes. The dead appear to us in dreams, said Julian, because that's the only way they can make us see them; what we see is only a projection, beamed from a great distance, light shining at us from a dead star…Which reminds me, by the way, of a dream I had a couple of weeks ago.I found myself in a strange deserted city – an old city, like London – underpopulated by war or disease. It was night; the streets were dark, bombed-out, abandoned. For a long time, I wandered aimlessly – past ruined parks, blasted statuary, vacant lots overgrown with weeds and collapsed apartment houses with rusted girders poking out of their sides like ribs. But here and there, interspersed among the desolate shells of the heavy old public buildings, I began to see new buildings, too, which were connected by futuristic walkways lit from beneath. Long, cool perspectives of modern architecture, rising phosphorescent and eerie from the rubble.I went inside one of these new buildings. It was like a laboratory, maybe, or a museum. My footsteps echoed on the tile floors.There was a cluster of men, all smoking pipes, gathered around an exhibit in a glass case that gleamed in the dim light and lit their faces ghoulishly from below.I drew nearer. In the case was a machine revolving slowly on a turntable, a machine with metal parts that slid in and out and collapsed in upon themselves to form new images. An Inca temple… click click click… the Pyramids… the Parthenon.History passing beneath my very eyes, changing every moment.'I thought I'd find you here,' said a voice at my elbow.It was Henry. His gaze was steady and impassive in the dim light. Above his ear, beneath the wire stem of his spectacles, I could just make out the powder burn and the dark hole in his right temple.I was glad to see him, though not exactly surprised. 'You know,' I said to him, 'everybody is saying that you're dead.'He stared down at the machine. The Colosseum… click click click… the Pantheon. 'I'm not dead,' he said. 'I'm only having a bit of trouble with my passport.''What?'He cleared his throat. 'My movements are restricted,' he said.'I no longer have the ability to travel as freely as I would like.'Hagia Sophia. St. Mark's, in Venice. 'What is this place?' I asked him.'That information is classified, I'm afraid.'1 looked around curiously. It seemed that I was the only visitor.'Is it open to the public?' I said.'Not generally, no.'I looked at him. There was so much I wanted to ask him, so much I wanted to say; but somehow I knew there wasn't time and even if there was, that it was all, somehow, beside the point.'Are you happy here?' I said at last.He considered this for a moment. 'Not particularly,' he said.'But you're not very happy where you are, either.'St. Basil's, in Moscow. Chartres. Salisbury and Amiens. He glanced at his watch.'I hope you'll excuse me,' he said, 'but I'm late for an appointment.'He turned from me and walked away. I watched his back receding down the long, gleaming hall.
And in the midst of our dying, as we rise from the organic and sink back ignominiously into the organic, it is a glory and a privilege to love what Death doesn’t touch. For if disaster and oblivion have followed this painting down through time — so too has love. Insofar as it is immortal (and it is) I have a small, bright, immutable part in that immortality. It exists; and it keeps on existing. And I add my own love to the history of people who have loved beautiful things, and looked out for them, and pulled them from the fire, and sought them when they were lost, and tried to preserve them and save them while passing them along literally from hand to hand, singing out brilliantly from the wreck of time to the next generation of lovers, and the next.
But Robin: their dear little Robs. More than ten years later, his death remained an agony; there was no glossing any detail; its horror was not subject to repair or permutation by any of the narrative devices that the Cleves knew. And—since this willful amnesia had kept Robin's death from being translated into that sweet old family vernacular which smoothed even the bitterest mysteries into comfortable, comprehensible form—the memory of that day's events had a chaotic, fragmented quality, bright mirrorshards of nightmare which flared at the smell of wisteria, the creaking of a clothes-line, a certain stormy cast of spring light.
The shame that tormented me was all the more corrosive for having no very clear origin: I didn't know why I felt so tainted, and worthless, and wrong-only that I did, and whenever I looked up from my books I was swamped by slimy waters rushing in from all sides.
The lamplight was eerie, and, standing there motionless in our bathrobes, sleepy, with shadows flickering all around, I felt as though I had woken from one dream into an even more remote one, some bizarre wartime bomb shelter of the unconscious.
During the next week, everyone noticed that my appetite had improved, even Toddy. “Are you done with your hunger strike?” he asked me curiously, one morning. “Toddy, eat your breakfast.” “But I thought that was what it was called. When people don’t eat.” “No, a hunger strike is for people in prison,” Kitsey said coolly. “Kitten,” said Mr. Barbour, in a warning tone. “Yes, but he ate three waffles yesterday,” said Toddy, looking eagerly between his uninterested parents in an attempt to engage them. “I only ate two waffles. And this morning he ate a bowl of cereal and six pieces of bacon, but you said five pieces of bacon was too much for me. Why can’t I have five pieces, too?
But when she was annoyed with me, she had a cold way of saying “Apparently” in answer to almost anything I said, making me feel stupid. “Um, I can’t find the can opener.” “Apparently.” “There’s going to be a lunar eclipse tonight.” “Apparently.” “Look, sparks are coming out of the wall socket.” “Apparently.
Maybe that's why I tend to equate physical beauty with qualities with which it has absolutely nothing to do. I see a pretty mouth or a moody pair of eyes and imagine all sorts of deep affinities, private kinships.
Do you remember what we were speaking of earlier, of how bloody, terrible things are sometimes the most beautiful?” he said. “It’s a very Greek idea, and a very profound one. Beauty is terror. Whatever we call beautiful, we quiver before it. And what could be more terrifying and beautiful, to souls like the Greeks or our own, than to lose control completely? To throw off the chains of being for an instant, to shatter the accident of our mortal selves? Euripides speaks of the Maenads: head thrown back, throat to the stars, ‘more like deer than human being.’ To be absolutely free! One is quite capable, of course, of working out these destructive passions in more vulgar and less efficient ways. But how glorious to release them in a single burst! To sing, to scream, to dance barefoot in the woods in the dead of night, with no more awareness of mortality than an animal! These are powerful mysteries. The bellowing of bulls. Springs of honey bubbling from the ground. If we are strong enough in our souls we can rip away the veil and look that naked, terrible beauty right in the face; let God consume us, devour us, unstring our bones. Then spit us out reborn.
Maybe that's why I tend to equate physical beauty with qualities with which it has absolutely nothing to do. I see a pretty mouth or a moody pair of eyes and imagine all sorts of deep affinities, private kinships. Never mind that half a dozen jerks are clustered round the same person, just because they've been duped by the same pair of eyes.
...as we rise from the organic and sink back ignominiously into the organic, it is a glory and a privilege to love what Death doesn't touch.
Great paintings—people flock to see them, they draw crowds, they’re reproduced endlessly on coffee mugs and mouse pads and anything-you-like. And, I count myself in the following, you can have a lifetime of perfectly sincere museum-going where you traipse around enjoying everything and then go out and have some lunch. But if a painting really works down in your heart and changes the way you see, and think, and feel, you don’t think, ‘oh, I love this picture because it’s universal.’ ‘I love this painting because it speaks to all mankind.’ That’s not the reason anyone loves a piece of art. It’s a secret whisper from an alleyway. Psst, you. Hey kid. Yes you. An individual heart-shock. Your dream, Welty’s dream, Vermeer’s dream. You see one painting, I see another, the art book puts it at another remove still, the lady buying the greeting card at the museum gift shop sees something else entire, and that’s not even to mention the people separated from us by time—four hundred years before us, four hundred years after we’re gone—it’ll never strike anybody the same way and the great majority of people it’ll never strike in any deep way at all but—a really great painting is fluid enough to work its way into the mind and heart through all kinds of different angles, in ways that are unique and very particular. Yours, yours. I was painted for you. And—oh, I don’t know, stop me if I’m rambling… but Welty himself used to talk about fateful objects. Every dealer and antiquaire recognizes them. The pieces that occur and recur. Maybe for someone else, not a dealer, it wouldn’t be an object. It’d be a city, a color, a time of day. The nail where your fate is liable to catch and snag.
This was a plunge encompassing sorrow and revulsion far beyond the personal: a sick, drenching nausea at all humanity and human endeavor from the dawn of time. The writhing loathsomeness of the biological order. Old age, sickness, death. No escape for anyone. Even the beautiful ones were like soft fruit about to spoil. And yet somehow people still kept fucking and breeding and popping out new fodder for the grave, producing more and more new beings to suffer like this was some kind of redemptive, or good, or even somehow morally admirable thing: dragging more innocent creatures into the lose-lose game.
How much did she remember? I wondered, afire with humiliation yet unable to tear my eyes from her. It wasn’t the kind of thing you could ask but still I wanted to know. Did she have nightmares too? Crowd fears? Sweats and panics? Did she ever have the sense of observing herself from afar, as I often did, as if the explosion had knocked my body and my soul into two separate entities that remained about six feet apart from one another? Her gust of laughter had a self-propelling recklessness I knew all too well from wild nights with Boris, an edge of giddiness and hysteria that I associated (in myself, anyway) with having narrowly missed death. There had been nights in the desert where I was so sick with laughter, convulsed and doubled over with aching stomach for hours on end, I would happily have thrown myself in front of a car to make it stop.
What if one happens to be possessed of a heart that can’t be trusted—? What if the heart, for its own unfathomable reasons, leads one willfully and in a cloud of unspeakable radiance away from health, domesticity, civic responsibility and strong social connections and all the blandly-held common virtues and instead straight towards a beautiful flare of ruin, self-immolation, disaster?
That surge of power and delight, of confidence, of control. That sudden sense of the richness of the world. Its infinite possibility.
What if the heart, for its own unfathomable reasons, leads one willfully and in a cloud of unspeakable radiance away from health, domesticity, civic responsibility and strong social connections and all the blandly-held common virtues and instead straight toward a beautiful flare of ruin, self-immolation, disaster?…If your deepest self is singing and coaxing you straight toward the bonfire, is it better to turn away? Stop your ears with wax? Ignore all the perverse glory your heart is screaming at you? Set yourself on the course that will lead you dutifully towards the norm, reasonable hours and regular medical check-ups, stable relationships and steady career advancement the New York Times and brunch on Sunday, all with the promise of being somehow a better person? Or…is it better to throw yourself head first and laughing into the holy rage calling your name?
Why am I made the way I am? Why do I care about all the wrong things, and nothing at all for the right ones? Or, to tip it another way: how can I see so clearly that everything I love or care about is illusion, and yet--for me, anyway--all that's worth living for lies in that charm?
I was deluded, and I knew it. Worse: my love for Pippa was muddied-up below the waterline with my mother, with my mother's death, with losing my mother and not being able to get her back. All that blind, infantile hunger to save and be saved, to repeat the past and make it different, had somehow attached itself, ravenously, to her. There was an instability in it, a sickness. I was seeing things that weren't there. I was only one step away from some trailer park loner stalking a girl he'd spotted in the mall. For the truth of it was: Pippa and I saw each other maybe twice a year; we e-mailed and texted, though with no great regularity; when she was in town we loaned each other books and went to the movies; we were friends; nothing more. My hopes for a relationship with her were wholly unreal, whereas my ongoing misery, and frustration, were an all-too-horrible reality. Was groundless, hopeless, unrequited obsession any way to waste the rest of my life?
The little white bundle—toddling dutifully down the hall to the front door—froze. Then a high-pitched scream as he began to run as fast as he could (which was not very fast at all, any more) and Boris—whooping with laughter—dropped to his knees.“Oh!” snatching him up, as Popchik wriggled and struggled. “You got fat! He got fat!” he said indignantly as Popchik jumped up and kissed him on the face. “You let him get fat! Yes, hello, poustyshka, little bit of fluff you, hello! You remember me, don’t you?” He had toppled over on his back, stretched out and laughing, as Popchik—still screaming with joy—jumped all over him. “He remembers me!
But does it make any sense at all to know that it ends badly for all of us, even the happiest of us, and that we all lose everything that matters in the end-and yet to know as well, despite all this, as cruelly as the game is stacked, that it's possible to play it with a kind of joy?To try to make some meaning out of all this seems unbelievably quaint. Maybe I only see a pattern because I've been staring too long. But then again, to paraphrase Boris, maybe I see a pattern because it's there.
Richard Papen: As it happened, I knew Gartrell. He was a bad painter and a vicious gossip, with a vocabulary composed almost entirely of obscenities, gutteral verbs, and the world postmodernist.
What do you think about America?Everyone always smiles so big! Well—most people. Maybe not so much you. I think it looks stupid.
But, if I dare say it, it wasn't until I had helped kill a man that I realized how elusive and complex an act a murder can actually be, and not necessarily attributable to one dramatic motive.
Fate is cruel but maybe not random. Nature (meaning Death) always wins but that doesn't mean we have to bow and gravel to it.
The vitality of the act was entirely obfuscated, the beauty, the terror, the sacrifice.' He took one last drag of this cigarette and put it out. 'Quite simply,' he said, 'we didn't believe. And belief was the one condition which was absolutely necessary. Belief, and absolute surrender.
And what does a person with such romantic temperament seek in the study of the classics?If by romantic you mean solitary and introspective, I think romantics are frequently the best classicists.
Who knew it was in my power to make anyone so happy? Or that I could ever be so happy myself? My moods were a slingshot; after being locked-down and anesthetized for years my heart was zinging and slamming itself around like a bee under a glass, everything bright, sharp, confusing, wrong - but it was a clean pain as opposed to the dull misery that had plagued me for years under the drugs like a rotten tooth, the sick dirty ache of something spoiled. The clarity was exhilarating; it was as if I'd removed a pair of smudged-up glasses that fuzzed everything I saw. All summer long I had been practically delirious: tingling, daffy, energized, running on gin and shrimp cocktail and the invigorating whock of tennis balls. And all I could think was Kitsey, Kitsey, Kitsey!
Do you have any idea why you might be feeling better?”“No, not really,” I said curtly. Better wasn’t even the word for how I felt. There wasn’t a word for it. It was more that things too small to mention—laughter in the hall at school, a live gecko scurrying in a tank in the science lab—made me feel happy one moment and the next like crying. Sometimes, in the evenings, a damp, gritty wind blew in the windows from Park Avenue, just as the rush hour traffic was thinning and the city was emptying for the night; it was rainy, trees leafing out, spring deepening into summer; and the forlorn cry of horns on the street, the dank smell of the wet pavement had an electricity about it, a sense of crowds and static, lonely secretaries and fat guys with bags of carry-out, everywhere the ungainly sadness of creatures pushing and struggling to live. For weeks, I’d been frozen, sealed-off; now, in the shower, I would turn up the water as hard as it would go and howl, silently. Everything was raw and painful and confusing and wrong and yet it was as if I’d been dragged from freezing water through a break in the ice, into sun and blazing cold.
I hated being around people, couldn’t pay attention to what anyone was saying, couldn’t talk to clients, couldn’t tag my pieces, couldn’t ride the subway, human activity seemed pointless, incomprehensible, some blackly swarming ant hill in the wilderness, there was not a squeak of light anywhere I looked, the antidepressants I’d been dutifully swallowing for eight weeks hadn’t helped a bit, nor had the ones before that (but then, I’d tried them all; apparently I was among the twenty unfortunates who didn’t get the daisy fields and the butterflies but the Sever Headaches and the Suicidal Thoughts); and though the darkness sometimes lifted just enough so I could construe my surroundings, familiar shapes solidifying the bedroom furniture at dawn, my relief was never more than temporary because somehow the full morning never came, things always went black before I could orient myself and there I was again with ink poured in my eyes, guttering around in the dark.
[T]hough the darkness sometimes lifted just enough so I could construe my surroundings, familiar shapes solidifying like bedroom furniture at dawn, my relief was never more than temporary because somehow the full morning never came, things always went black before I could orient myself and there I was again with ink poured in my eyes, guttering around in the dark.