Friday, August 20, 2010

Of splendor in the grass, of glory in the flower

The poet Yeats said of the poet Shelley, "There is for every man some one scene, some one adventure, some one picture that is the image of his secret life, for wisdom speaks first in images."

What, I wonder, is my one scene, one picture?

It would depend, I suppose, upon the time of life.

There was a time when I could have stood all day before Monet's room-sized painting of water lilies at MoMA, all gorgeous natural depths, lush, sensual, accepting. The story then was not so much about myself as about the world out there, the world for which I was a curious spectator. I wanted to see the world as Monet saw it, with a kind of X-ray vision that dives through the surface to whatever it is that makes the world go, and glow.

Then I became obsessed with the paintings of Mark Rothko, those haunting, agnostic canvases of floating color that spoke in cryptic utterances, revealing nothing. Those were the days when I kept company with the medieval mystics -- Julian of Norwich and John of the Cross -- and their absconded God.

As I settled into comfortable middle age I might have chosen one of Vermeer's quiet domestic scenes or Pieter Bruegel's The Harvesters, crystal clear in its mathematical precision, its unabashed realism, its sensual celebration of work and rest, food and drink, a brow moist with sweat and the white nape of a neck inviting touch. Not ecstasy or transcendence, but tranquility and immanence. Oh yes, there was a worm in the bud, but hidden out of sight.

And now? And now? I keep coming back to the young Caravaggio's The Rest on the Flight Into Egypt. The black wings and white robe of the angel, curling together -- the yin and yang of a human life. On the left, darkness, a stony foreground, the anxious gaze of the seeking soul; on the right, light, verdancy, the quietude of acceptance; on the left, the masculine, hard, dry, fraught with tension; on the right, the feminine, gentle, soft, wet, conserving. The whole suffused with an erotic frisson. This angel is not one of the Christian heavenly choir; he is Eros. He is Cupid, with music for his wounding dart. And I am Joseph holding the score, a motet in C major by the Flemish composer Noel Baulduin, the text from the Song of Songs, that most erotic of scriptures: "How fair and pleasant you are, O loved one, delectable maiden."