Wednesday, November 06, 2013

The ultimate citadel of humanism

Here I go again. It seems lately that these posts drift more and more toward memoir, toward summing up, toward drawing together the raveled treads of a life. What started almost ten years ago as a continuation of my 20 years of science essays in the Boston Globe -- essays that aspired toward a spritely objectivity -- has become willy-nilly an exercise in self-indulgence. That so many of you have stayed for the ride suggests, I hope, that we share certain life-experiences, and that together we articulate a Tao, a way, a common aspiration to "ironic tenderness."

Here is another kind of summing up, one of Rembrandt's many self-portraits, this one painted in 1660, at age 53, towards the end of the artist's life. Its permanent home is Kenwood House in London. (Click to enlarge.)

I could say something here about silence and ironic tenderness. The painting embodies silence, yet speaks volumes about the inextricable tangles of the human condition. But I don't need to say anything. It has already been said by the writer John Fowles on the last page of his own summing-up novel, Daniel Martin, in a passage I copied into my journal sometime back in the late 1970s.

Daniel Martin, the novel's protagonist, has wandered into Kenwood House on Hampstead Heath and finds himself transfixed by the Rembrandt self-portrait:
He could see only one consolation in those remorseless and aloof Dutch eyes. It is not finally a matter of skill, of knowledge, of intellect; of good luck or bad; but of choosing and learning to feel. Dan began at last to detect it behind the surface of the painting; behind the sternness lay the declaration of the one true marriage in the mind mankind is allowed, the ultimate citadel of humanism. No true compassion without will, no true will without compassion.
After a lifetime of relationships, Dan is about to reunite with Jane, the one true love of his life. It is interesting that Fowles uses the word "compassion" rather than "love." It is, of course, what one sees in Rembrandt's face: compassion. Something that springs from somewhere deeper within than love. One can love ice cream; one does not feel compassion for ice cream. Love makes a Hollywood blockbuster; compassion makes a life.

So that, it seems, is what it was all about -- the years, the inextricable tangle. Not skill, knowledge, or intellect, such as they were, but the quiet resolution we see in those soulful Rembrandt eyes. Love happens. Compassion is willed.