Tuesday, September 08, 2009

Surrounded by a sleep

In an interview in this past weekend's Sunday Times, the Irish novelist John Banville reflects on mortality: "All that will be left is a name. But we'll have been here, and we'll have seen these extraordinary things that we see. And that, in some peculiar way, can't be erased. This is the only reason to try to make a work of art: to say that there was a man once here, and this is how he saw this amazingly beautiful place. It's awful here, of course, but I can't imagine anywhere better."

Banville was raised a Catholic, with the whole convoluted calculus of sin and salvation, and the promise at the end -- if you play your cards right -- of eternal bliss. Gone, all gone. And now, in the place of eternity, art. Words on the page. This is what I saw, Banville tells us in his novels. This is the awful, and this is the amazingly beautiful.

Art. It need not be the art of a Dante, a Bernini, a Bach, or a Matisse. It can be something as simple as a potted geranium in sunlight, an arrangement of beach pebbles on a windowsill, a few lines of Wordsworth recounted on a windy hilltop. What's important, I believe Mr. Banville would tell us, is that we have been here, that we have seen these extraordinary things, and lived in them and with them and of them.

All that will be left is a name. "Perhaps we are here only to say: House, Bridge, Fountain, Gate," says the poet Rainer Maria Rilke. He continues: "But to say them...oh, to say them more intensely than the Things themselves ever dreamed of being."

To experience -- and to say the words. And in saying the words houses float up from their foundations. Bridges leap into the air like birds. Fountains gush hallelujahs. Gates fling themselves open to the world.

(Tomorrow I will be winging westward across the Atlantic. Back on Thursday.)