Weather permitting, my wife and I like to walk long distances inside of New York City. On one of New York's many bridges, there is a man. I used to think I ran into him a lot; only lately do I realize he hangs out on that bridge. He has a boom box of odd design, always playing, and it seems he is always there. "Why do you suppose he does that?" Charlotte asked. It seemed to her counter-intuitive, a waste of resources, to hang out on the bridge: exposed to wind and sun, unable to sit or lie down, not asking for change among people not disposed to pass it along. But it seemed obvious to me. By establishing this habit, this man saves himself, in some small way, from being nobody. He is not just another homeless crazy, interchangeable, disposable, and forgettable. By virtue of his habit, he is somebody: he is the guy with the boom box who hangs out on that bridge. Many people would spend many resources to be this much of a somebody. It makes no sense to Charlotte, but it makes sense to me.
Consider another instance of people who have found a successful scheme to distinguish themselves from their fellow men:
This is inside of the Strand, at 12th St. and Broadway, a used bookstore beloved of New York residents and tourists alike. While we're on the topic, let me share a trick to Strand shopping which is not obvious at first: if you go in looking for something specific, they will not have it and you will be disappointed. But if you go in looking for nothing in particular, you will find the most wonderful books you didn't know you had to have.
I took this picture because, looking at these books, I realized that if everything goes absolutely right for me, and I wind up as a book in the Strand, this is where I'll go. Not bad company, right? Matisse, Michelangelo, Morandi, Mantegna, and Metsu are certainly not nobody. Consider two possible truths about the man on the bridge: either he stands on the bridge in order not to be nobody - or he uses his somebody-ness to teach us a lesson about something worthwhile. I hope to learn from things, and so I hope I've learned a lesson from his efforts. But in himself, it is more likely the man on the bridge is like most men: a slave to the cravings of his vanity. That is, he probably does not think of himself as some kind of sage teaching a lesson. He probably just wants to be somebody. This does not make him a low person - I am like that more often than I would prefer, and I do not think I am a low person - but in such a case the maximum virtue of his somebody-ness is lower than that of artists Ma- through Mo- at the Strand.
Why? Because these artists have used their somebody-ness the way it is meant to be used: as a vehicle for the preservation and transmission of something greater than themselves. Their work, obviously, is the point. What do we care that Michelangelo was a grump, Morandi a hermit, Matisse a bit of a letch, but certainly not more of one than I? These are charming details written on the box, but the prize inside the box is the work. The value of the name is that it saves the work from oblivion. And the work can save each soul it touches. This is the proper use of somebody-ness.
But consider another fearful reversal. We come to the shelves of the Strand as if making a pilgrimage to a holy place, to spend some minutes or hours in the august company of the mighty of the arts. But how does it look to them, living as they do a half-life as discounted books? To the extent they have any self-knowledge left, they must conceive of themselves as hollowed-out, dulled, beggars. They are groaning for our attention, we are the only vehicles that remain for them to continue living. They are absolutely helpless, and if we will not spend some time with them, they must hurry along at last to that house of shadows their cleverness allowed them to escape for some decades or centuries. Nobody who lives and dies escapes it forever; one day the name of Michelangelo must also be forgotten, and he, loudest of mouths, will at long last be silenced.
What a strange situation this is! We approach these artists in awe and supplication, and they in turn approach us in desperation, the breath of oblivion hot on the back of their necks. We the living can afford to approach them in all innocence. They, so much closer to death, cannot afford innocence. Things have clarified for them, that this is a struggle for survival. Have they repudiated the magnificence of their own work? I hate to think so.
Everything Will Be Made and Forgotten Again
There is one answer to this awful dilemma. I grasped the answer once, and wrote it into a script for a long-abandoned film. This part of the script is set in an edenic society on the shores of the oceans of Europa. One of the people there makes the leap from the continuous forgetful present into awareness of self and time. This leap gives her two understandings which elude her fellows: hope for the future, and fear of death. Distraught, she goes apart from human company. At the bottom of the sea, she discovers the native Europans, which are telepathic sea fans (you can see why this film didn't get made). She presents her woes to these sea fans. The sea fans have already endured what she is only now suffering: they remember eden, and they remember the turbulence of mortal life and hope. They have long since made their way back to the eden consciousness wins for itself. They say to her, "Everything will be made and forgotten again. Therefore laugh and regret nothing."
This is extraordinarily difficult to accept. Not for everyone, but for me at least. And I recognize that when I do finally accept it, it will be very easy to accept. But until then, it will remain difficult. Matisse, who kept drawing on the wall with a stick when he was a sick old man lying in bed, grasped the principle and made a picture of it, a picture which is a door wide open to enlightenment, to celebrating what we can have and letting go the burden of wanting things we cannot have:
Henri Matisse, The Dance, 1910, oil on canvas, 102"x154"
This picture, in fact, was in my folder for the visual design of the Europa sequence. And the idea I assign to it, of "laugh and regret nothing," is an idea I turn to nearly so much as I turn to my furious ambition and my thirst for immortality. Perhaps I will argue every idea and its opposite, so long as they are interesting ideas. In the meantime, though, I am in a "laugh and regret nothing" mood - it is a sunny day in the unusually cold spring of 2013, and there is good cheer enough for the man on the bridge, and for Gabriel Metsu on the shelf at the Strand, and for me and you. I am painting like crazy lately, and I hope you too have a wonderfully productive summer.