Tuesday, October 25, 2011

God's silence like the sun


I came across the painting above, "Sleeper," by the Belgian artist Michael Borremans, in the current issue of the TLS (Times Literary Supplement). Not part of any exposition; just offered for our delectation, as the TLS is inclined to do. Click to enlarge.

I had previously seen this painting as the jacket illustration for Franz Wright's latest book of poems, Kindertotenwald. You have met Franz Wright here before. I have not read his new book, but on the basis of previous volumes I can guess that it was he, not his publisher's designer, who chose the image.

It would be fun to hazard a few guesses about the painting. Was Borremans working from a photograph? Did he finish the child's head and recognize the power of leaving the rest of the canvas unpainted? Or did he fill the canvas and then paint out all but the head? Maybe these questions are answered somewhere on the web, but I haven't gone looking.

In any case, it is the white silence surrounding the sleeper that gives the painting its strange power. It was perhaps this same silence that appealed to the poet. One of his earlier volumes is titled God's Silence. It is a theme that runs through Wright's work: Our agonizing discomfort in a universe that seems to ask disquieting questions, without providing answers.

It's all very Rilke-esque. Asking, questing, shouting our longing into the silent darkness. Seeking the courage to live without ultimate answers. "The long silences need to be loved, perhaps,/ more than the words/ which arrive/ to describe them/ in time," writes the sometimes tormented Wright, in a moment of consolation.

Living with the silence. "We speak of Heaven who have not yet accomplished/ even this, this holiness of things/ precisely as they are, and never will," says Wright, struggling to live fully in the given particulars. And again: "The forgiveness! I know it/ will be freely offered/ or it won't, and that is all--/ and no one may bestow it/ on himself./ If it is to come/ it will come of itself like a separate/ being,/ a mystery, working/ unseen as a wind causes still/ leaves or water to move once again."

The stillness, the silence. The longed-for peace in the absence of an ultimate context.