Friday, October 19, 2007

Time and Again

If ever there was one who lived in the space between rock and not rock, it is the poet T.S. Eliot. Hold a rock in your hand and consider this, from The Four Quartets. The cycle begins:

Time present and time past

Are both perhaps present in time future,

And time future contained in time past.

* * *
Only in a world of speculation.

What might have been and what has been

Point to one end, which is always present.

Footfalls echo in the memory

Down the passage which we did not take

Towards the door we never opened

Into the rose-garden

Rocks are emissaries from the time that might have been and the time that is yet to be. They predate me by millions, even billions, of years and they will continue to exist long after the body that contains me has dissolved back into the earth, perhaps to be incorporated into a rock. The more I am able to let go my own whirring, and most unrocklike thoughts, the more the rock can ground me both in time and the body, in earthiness. It is hard for me to think in geological time, but with a rock in the palm of my hand and my breathing slow, I am empowered to try.

I learn that each rock, like each person, is a miniature version of a much larger story. Were I a geologist, I could tell you things about the era in which this rock was formed, what minerals it contained, where it was likely to have arisen. It helps me to discern the big picture within the small, and this is why rock work is helpful, not only in clearing the mind for prayer, but in approaching a work of art.

Rocks are the inner work of the earth, just as art is the inner work of culture, just as dreams that come to me by night are the inner work of me. And just as earth, mineral, pigment shape the world that I see, so do my dreams shape the stories, the images and the expectations I will bring to my seeing.

Each work of art, like each rock, holds within it a link to all. It has taken me a lifetime to be able to see this. I’m not sure I would even have tried, had “Vertumnus and Pomona” not frustrated my expectations so shockingly when I was young in much the same way that my inability to concentrate upon a rock for ten minutes frustrated the image of my own insightfulness when I grew older. To pay attention to ones random thoughts is to discover how fleeting they really are, how pointless much of the time, like the mayfly that rises above the waters and is nearly swallowed by the trout, like little Pomona, who allowed herself to be seduced by the blandishments of a cross-dresser.

My own confusion made me more than grateful for my friend Amanda. During my years at the museum, Amanda was my rock. The first thing she told me was to relax. High culture, she hinted, might be the last refuge of scoundrels and profundity a smoke screen thrown up by the terminally shallow. Amanda had the kind of confidence that comes naturally to the well born and she was a born popularizer.

Amanda was about ten years older than my mother. She had grown up in Piedmont, an elegant two mile square enclave surrounded entirely by a rather rougher Oakland. Piedmont people were sheltered, rich, beautiful and subject to no standards but their own. High culture, she said, was always about impressing somebody else, which was exactly what the Rococo did to perfection. Just look at those soft thighs and sensuous silks. Amanda knew all about this, of course. She had eloped to Tahoe during her freshman year at Cal, which was quite a wild thing to do, but as she said, “In those days, if you wanted to do it, you had to get married first.” By the time I met her, she and the Beast, as she affectionately called her husband, had raised three children and were settling into a comfortable old age. They inhabited an apartment on the Marina in San Francisco which, like my aunt’s well bred house, found its grace in elegant and careful understatement, but if my aunt’s two acres in the woods of Marin County were like a Russian estate in microcosm, Amanda’s apartment in the Marina was urban and cosmopolitan. It was Amanda who brought back court gossip from Washington and coined that immortal phrase about Boucher and his age, “This was when the gods came down from the heavens and into the boudoir.” In Amanda’s mind, the boudoir was the defining room of the entire eighteenth century, because the eighteenth century was all about love. She had never had to worry about starving peasants, and she did not.

Amanda’s salon gave me a new appreciation of Boucher’s delicious paganism. Not only had the gods come down from the heavens, they had, for the moment at least, vanquished a world which had come to take itself far too seriously. The seventeenth century had nearly been crushed under the weight of its seriousness. Invoking the absolute rightness of their doctrines and seeking to cleanse and purify all dissent in rivers of blood, men thundered and fought in the name of God. Reformation, counter-Reformation, Inquisition, death in the name of our crucified Lord, total war on a scale that would not be seen for centuries. And then it ended. To have awakened in a townhouse in Paris in 1721 was something fresh and beautiful, something that had never before been tried, life not as obedience to God, but in cultivating the very best of what it meant to be human. There were ruins lying around, but the passion and the darkness were over. The killing was done. Europe had lost its taste for cathedrals, for the grand gesture, the sweeping tides of Empire and Inquisition. When the sun rose upon the eighteenth century, it lit up the pastel walls of private town houses, the hôtels of Paris. It was a life infused by Rene Descartes’ simple mantra, “I think, therefore I am,” life wedded to its own ideas and mathematical elegance. This was a world hosted by brilliant women, because brilliant women have always presided over the house cultures at the beginning of things, be they the early caves of the goddess, or the early house churches of the Christian movement, or the salons in which the Age of Enlightenment saw the break of its day.

In the early 18th century, with the power of religion seemingly crushed into submission, human beings were given permission to reinvent the world. Women built beautiful rooms in which to wrench the mysteries of life away from the vengeful and vindictive heavens. Women of genius made it possible for men of science and philosophes to reimagine human life, not as the fallen creation of God, but something positive, rational, understandable on a human scale. It was giddy and fun. Anything was possible.

Nor were these women the sweet and gentle girls that men always imagine come to welcome them home from the wars, these women were like Penelope, made strong during the years alone in Ithaka, educated and very canny. While the men had dismembered one another with swords, smashed one another with canons and used the very unsubtle machinations of the torture chamber to overpower their enemies, the women had stayed home, weaving and unraveling the tapestries of time, the shroud with which they would bury their fathers, the wombs from which they would birth the new. There is much subtlety and truth to be found in this.

I still did not love “Vertumnus and Pomona”, but Amanda made a very sweet case for their very feminine world.

1 comment:

Ctelblog said...

There is something rather beautiful about your writing and yet, at the same time, opaque. Very enjoyable.

How about something about why if God is a loving God does he allow terrible things to happen to innocent people (however one defines that term). Or is the Old Testament right, in that God is a vengeful God to be appeased and who can wreak terrible things just because God can? And so we should fear, not love, God.