Out of the corner of my eyes I saw the end of man’s dignity. It was something very simple: a deft rejection; a missed telephone call; a piece of shrapnel lodged in the soul of man; a waiter who slips and falls in lobster juice spilled from the plate he was carrying; an otherwise beautiful woman on the bus who glances impatiently at her wristwatch so many times in the same minute that you feel this rather just urge to glue her eyes to that very same watch.
In front of me was a larger-than-life sculpture of a warrior I could not recognize. His head and only his head had been carved from stone, and the rest of his body, it seemed, from bronze. How had the sculptor attached to the bronze that stone head?, I wondered, and then moving closer under the sculpture to see the seams right where the head joined the body to form a neck I concluded that the sculptor had been an equally accomplished sartor who, perhaps upon realizing his mistake, had sewed the head and body together. This composite nature of the sculpture revealed many things about this unnamed renaissance artist who had combined his intellect with the practical nature of his work, and weighed neither craft nor subject heavier than the other. After touring the sculpture several times and failing to locate any description of this artwork, nor the date of its composition, I sat in a café nearby which had nothing but a good view of this sculpture to boast for, and thus attempted to deduce the time period in which this artist had been active, a further study of which I imagined would illuminate me as to the true purpose of its composition, as well as the artist’s intentions. I spent perhaps 5 hours in that café, much to the owner’s dismay who,it must have been midnight, knocked on my table rather uninvitingly and invited me to pay the bill and clear the table. I grudgingly obliged, although my exploration of this artwork had not yet ended. I quickly paid an amount to the owner, looked him deep in the eye as to suggest to him that he would not be seeing me soon in his rotten café, and then took off.
I then found a wooden, moldy bench; after a thorough examination I discovered one good part of the bench wide enough to house my behind, I sat down and then turned to this behemoth of a sculpture yet once again, and at that point, kept from my regular schedule of sleep and growing increasingly impatient at this impenetrable statue, began to imagine thus.
This statue is that of a Mughal emperor, one whose absence from all history books is strange but not entirely unexpected, for this emperor had died in a fire that had threatened to burn his entire kingdom, which stretched a proper length of a river as long as the Nile, and which must have been as wide as the sky; in other words, this kingdom must have been impossible, and the fire that threatened to kill it, too, then must have been impossible. But contending, still, that most of his kingdom had been obliterated by this monstrous fire, this artist who had sculpted the handsome king must have been one of the few survivors of the fire; having survived the ordeal, the artist must have considered it his duty to build a work that reflected the immensity of his former residence, the great, unknown Mughal empire that had been destroyed beyond history. Thus forming this story in my head, I went to examine this sculpture in detail again, and now noticed, to my own surprise, that where I had earlier noticed clear seams joining the bronze body and the stone head, I now saw dirty, jagged ends of the bronze melted into the stone by a strong and capricious fire.
Satisfied with this story, I all but turned to go home when, at the foot of this statue, I noticed a small woman whose beauty, I thought, was unparalleled by any other woman that I had ever seen before this day. She seemed to be singing, or wanting to sing; her body was struck in a suspended pose, recalling to mind the suspended gait of a crotchet on a music sheet. Yet although her body wanted to sing, something in her poise told me that her voice could not. I felt at that moment that something was just not right; a certain foreboding something screamed at me, to not approach this beautiful woman, who at this time of the night in the streets could not possibly be good news. Going against all instinct and good judgment, I approached her; as I walked closer to her, the woman seemed further and further away from my reach. I gathered that I had simply misjudged the proportions of this immense sculpture, under which the woman, although she looked close to me, was simply just as immense of a lady and therefore further away from me despite her misleading proximity. And with each step towards this statue, the woman began moving away – in the beginning as though she was still in that musical suspension – but later it became more and more apparent to me that the woman was running away from me. She must have been scared by my curiosity, coupled with my lack of sleep, which had led to poor judgment. I pursued her without end.
After what seemed like many miles – I had lost track of time now – I realized that the woman was simply mirroring my movements. She was not running away from me: she never had been. For when I paused to catch my breath, I noticed that the woman stopped, too. She was not simply running away from me; she only ran when I ran, and she moved only when I moved. Looking around me, I saw that in my pursuit of this beautiful yet ungraspable phantom of a woman, my vision of the world outside had been diminished. I searched in my memory, too, and memory too failed me.
I did not know where I had reached. Covered in sweat, having run an indiscernible distance, I had perhaps reached the heart of the sculpture that I had previously chosen as the object of my study. Around me, all markers of reality failed. There was no sun or moon to inform me of the time of day; this woman, who had lured me into what I think must have been this sculpture’s trap, was both close to me and far away, all at once: if I wanted her, she was ungraspable, and when I chose not to grasp her, she was right there, a centimeter away from the tip of my tender finger; over me, I saw that sculpture still, in all its grandiosity, and in its arrogance the sculpture now towered over me, its subject the warrior still unrecognizable, the style of its artist still beyond my little knowledge of the art. I must shut my eyes to the sight of this woman, to the seductive call of interpretation.
Out of the corner of my eyes I saw the end of man’s dignity. It may have been the end of the universe, too; it was something very simple. A missed telephone call, a man who had ventured off into a painting a long time ago and never found his way home, that man in the otherwise still painting who wriggles his way through the thick scratches of oil painted on canvas. It was precisely that, and nothing more.
In front of me was the sculpture of a warrior I did not recognize, his head carved from stone and the rest of his body from bronze, the two joined together by the pointy end of a sword sticking out of the inside of his torso. Having examined this sculpture without any end for a long time now, my impatient intellect led me to imagine thus.
This sculpture depicts an unnamed Roman army general who had been instrumental in the conquest of Britain in the early days of our calendar. All through the conquest, this General had driven his men to fight beyond their animal instinct for sleep, rest, fatigue, to fight for empire, to fight for the right to conquer; this General had single-handedly slaughtered his enemy on one fine morning – more than a hundred thousand of those Brits; and of course they weren’t Brits then, but this extraordinary Roman General, who in his childhood had been blessed with great foresight, called them Brits, filthy, hungry Brits, all of whom had been fed the General’s sword. But a horrible plague, which in those days were quite common, had wiped this General’s army out, and by some strange miracle that plague had refused to kill the General. The poor General, heartbroken, upon returning to his native Rome, instead of being welcomed as a hero and the sole survivor of genocidal Nature, was shunned – for in those days, the people were ignorant, illiterate. They must have assumed that the General, in fact, was the cause of the plague; and thus being the cause of the plague he had himself survived it, for one cannot be the cause for oneself. The Roman, exiled, had then chanced upon these abandoned lands, where he had taken to the art of carving, and first carving from stone and bronze his own saddened body and head, he then took his tool, his sword, and made it part of his art. By propping his own head straight on his own sword, the General had thus wanted to express the overwhelming sensation of grief: the grief of exile, the unflattering feeling of surviving genocide, and the exhilarating desire to escape exile through death.
At that moment, as I turned to go home, I saw, out of the corner of my eyes, the sculpture fall into a million pieces, and each of these pieces grew limbs, and from these limbs scurried out tiny words that like pleas climbed into my ears and begged for forgiveness and I, with my tiny hands and my tiny eyes in front of this once-giant sculpture that had towered over me and refused me the sweet satisfaction of interpretation, did nothing but fall down to my own two knees and, with these little voices, wept until the end of time.
Suddenly, I saw the real picture. It was clear as day; the sculpture, which could be viewed only one part at a time due to its enormous scale, and which had towered over me until now, was in fact framed in a small painting that I, upon waking each morning, had the pleasure of viewing from my bed. My short-sightedness, I understood, led to the distortion of several of the painting’s salient features, and this vision of the painting, mixed with my actual picture of this wondrous work when I did have on my glasses, had captured in my attention a very awe-inspiring but ultimately misleading idea of the immensity of this otherwise small, contained, and harmless painting.
But it was not the painting itself that had troubled me so, but that image of the painting that I had previously dreamt in my sleep. In my sleep, the various characters in this image of the painting had haunted me; and now, in my conscious state, I could not for the life of me find this woman who had evaded me in my dream. She was nowhere in the painting, and yet I had no reason to believe that she had not been in this painting. She must have been real; or else I could not have imagined her; or she must have been imagined, for otherwise, she must be real. I concluded that the unknown painter who had first completed this work of art and left it hanging by my bedside must have used his brush to conjure the idea of a woman more beautiful than any other woman without actually sketching the outlines of this woman’s body, which, I imagined the painter’s thinking, would have reduced the idea of this woman to her mere body, thus diminishing, too, her beauty. Here commending the power of the astounding intellect behind this painter’s simple craft of brush and canvas, I went back to sleep.
Painting by Chaïm Soutine, “The Village”