As, with the morning's trash, they haul away my portrait, already shredded as a
precaution against the chance it should escape the fiery fate I have decreed, my
thoughts do not return (as might be expected) to that distant morning my father
took us to the bohemian side of town to visit my lunatic grandmother, to see
again the long avenues where the glorious antics of his childhood were enacted,
and to have our likenesses hastily sketched in charcoal (immortalizing thereby
my blue and white striped sweater and rosy cheeks): I think instead of Titus
A passer-by at this moment, glancing upward, seeing me framed by the bedroom
window and frozen in contemplation, might almost take me for another portrait,
later but still unsatisfying - bristling and balding, with a nose like one of those
potatoes on which a small protruberance has sprouted, miniature version of the
original potato, organic examplar of fractal theory - in short, an image, like that
shredded picture of the child, from which I would like to distance myself with all
I suspect it doesn't exist, the picture that would express, to my satisfaction, the
whole me, the real, the true me, especially since, in addition to my constantly
changing physical appearance, I possess, and identify more deeply with, that
invisible self who abides in the insubstantial country of the mind.
Imagine, then, the dilemma of Titus Androgynus, faced with the prospect of
rendering no mere human likeness but the face of God. I see him there, alone in
the basilica, in the swirling heat of Byzantine summer, poised with his brush
before the blank panel, considering how, with line and in colors, to capture the
infinite, to portray the invisible, to express the divine.
Perhaps a blasphemous thought flickers across his mind: he likens himself to
God at the moment of creation, confronting chaos without a guide. For my part,
he calls to mind the Abstract Expressionists - Hans Hofmann, Phillip Guston,
Mark Rothko - in the Greenwich Village studios from whose windows I like to
think of them glancing down to the scene below, bemused at the breezy facility
with which the street artist executes my odious semblance, as they quietly wage
war at the edge of the abyss.
I continue to watch from my upstairs window as my shredded portrait mingles
with all the town's detritus in the truck's compressor, recalling my Nana's habit of
"accidentally" dropping flower pots from her window as her neighbors strolled
below. Suddenly I am struck by a worrisome thought: what if, on the verge of
incinerating the trash, the men recognize, among the banana peels and candy
wrappers, the remnants of an art-work? Perhaps, with hopes of discovering a
priceless masterpiece, they will attempt to reconstruct it, fitting the pieces as in a
puzzle, fired by dreams of fame and fortune. (Or what if, thousands of years
hence, in the wake of nuclear catastrophe or climatic disaster, aliens arrive on
lifeless earth in search of clues to the nature of our civilization, and find all is
destroyed except the pieces of this painting which they, like the garbage men,
attempt to restore, but without a proper concept of the human form, arriving
thereby at an image completely different from the original portrait, though
perhaps, from an aesthetic point of view, no less, and maybe even more,
And it occurs to me, over the drone of mechanical digestion below, that I've
accomplished, through these ruminations, precisely what I most desired to avoid:
in the immaterial form of thought, in the marble halls of memory, I have
safe-guarded, perpetuated, immortalized, the very image I so sought to erase.
When my father died, my mother already being gone, we placed their belongings
in a gigantic storage bin in upstate New York. More than a year passed before
my brothers and I resolved to meet there again, in the cavernous solitude of that
soulless mausoleum, to divide and discard their pots and pans, and their prints
and paintings - including those forgotten charcoal sketches of us, made so long
I remember, as a child, visiting my uncle George in the hospital, finding him
trapped between the equally miserable prospects of dying from the effects of
surgery and surviving, which meant returning to Aunt Mary, whose life-mission
would seem to have been, on the one hand, to instill, in her husband and in her
children, a wish to become a millionaire, a movie star or a professional athlete,
while, on the other hand, to burden them with a profound conviction of their
inadequacy, guaranteeing thereby both their failures and her disappointments.
I was to learn, some time after that hospital visit, gradually, through
conversations with my mother, that this aunt of mine, her older sister and
childhood nemesis, had suffered amply at the hands of my grandfather whom I
knew as the gentle old man that would slip out the door on Christmas morning
and reappear as Santa Claus, with a thick Greek accent.
Oh, where does it end, this invisible thread of thraldom, that binds us to the sins
of our fathers? The pattern of our parents' feelings, as much as that bulbous
nose in the mirror, cling to us, and it's no wonder we feel toward ourselves what
we feel toward them: a mixture of disgust and love, and the need, at once, to
fulfill the decree of our inheritance, and to escape to the blessedness of a freely
Standing at my uncle's bedside, with what I now recognize as an appalling lack
of tact, my father shrugged and offered, "I don't know about you, George, but I'm
ready to go" - by which he meant, "to die" - "tomorrow."
Ready or not, my uncle died, but it was much later I had the opportunity to
observe the change that took place in my father's attitude on this subject, as his
strength ebbed, and an opportunity, as well, to repeat his mistake, the mistake of
assuming that, approaching death, we will feel as we do when in perfect health,
whereas the truth is quite different: along the path of our relentless demise we
are robbed of the very health, the strength, the optimism, that are the necessary
conditions for courage.
I struggled in those last years to find the requisite patience and sympathy for
those wispy forms, awash in silent suffering, even as my own children grew in
their independence, forming thereby an uncanny symmetry with their
And so that sunny afternoon at the warehouse with my brothers had for us a
ceremonial quality, marking the end of a period of time that had been overcast
with fears and frustrations, a phase of my life I looked forward to leaving behind,
unaware as I was of the changes wrought in me both by recent events and by
the effects of time, as, like the sea foam at the water's edge coursing over the
smooth pebbles, it wore, with gentle persistence, upon my soul.
And as that accretion of attitudes and thoughts, built up in my youth and
solidified through habit, but somehow extrinsic to my essential nature, wore
away, gradually it become evident that, deep inside me, something was stirring,
disturbing my dreams, that had been hidden but growing, awaiting its chance to
rise to the surface, something monstrous and inescapable, from the irrational
ground of self and world, from my dark, forgotten home in the mind of God, in the
womb of the universe.
At first this Beast was in my head. I would awake, a few hours before dawn,
filled with anxiety, tired but restless, forcibly wrested from slumber. Pacing back
and forth, increasingly frantic, unable to locate the source of my discomfort, I
would think of death, and realize, with a shock, that I, who was prepared, in this
life, for anything, was not, for this single certainty, prepared at all.
One such night I fled the house into the cool dark air and stumbled down the
empty street. A neon sign for an all night diner appeared; like the storm-tossed
sailor who espies the lighthouse beacon I steered my course. Entering, I was
enfolded in warmth and light, bewitched by the aroma of coffee, consoled by the
hum of human voices. Amidst the casual clinking of cups, with the sun blazing
up from behind the hills, I was saved that morning by a jelly doughnut.
Eventually, discontent with being restricted to the private world of my thoughts,
the Monster would take human form, weaving himself into the loom of my life.
There was a day I received a phone call from Sue while I was at work. She had
been confronted unpleasantly by a co-worker and was upset. Desiring to assist
her but being reluctant to cancel my afternoon classes, I decided to deal with
the situation the next day.
And that was the opening the Beast was looking for. Over the course of the
evening he grafted himself onto the person of Mr. X so completely that, by the
next morning, the man had become for me a living image of all my unconscious
fears, while our imminent encounter, the prospect of which I found paralyzing,
loomed like death itself, inevitable and beyond my control.
I realized clearly then that a violent conflict awaits us in the end with an
unimaginable foe, with no parent, kindergarten teacher or police to intervene,
for which we are ill prepared in a world that shelters us from dying and makes of
aging a unforgivable sin.
A number of days passed without any chance for a confrontation. Then, one
morning, quite unexpectedly, I found myself facing my fears. I had escorted Sue
into her school as usual, early in the morning, before the other teachers had
arrived. As she was clocking in at the front desk, I headed for the bathroom,
which happens to be located directly across from Mr. X's room. Two surprises
awaited me there: the bathroom door was locked, which indicated someone was
inside, and the door to X's room was open.
"He's here," I said.
"The door's open and the light is on."
"He must be in the bathroom."
"You go. I'll be up in a minute."
"What will you do?"
"I don't want you to do this."
Neither did I, especially considering my opponent was half my age and twice my
size. (I'd been over it in my mind a hundred times, what few, choice words I'd
utter in challenge - "This is for Sue!" or simply, "Mr. X!" or (to cover all
possibilities) "I may lose this fight but you shall nonetheless know that I must be
reckoned with!") Or perhaps silence would render me, in his mind, a frightening
enigma too - but then how initiate the struggle? One fast punch, before he
suspects anything? A challenging smack? Maybe, considering his advantage in
reach, I should attack the lower body, toppling him wrestling-style.
The main thing was to get mad enough to act.
"I don't want you to do this," she repeated.
Then we heard the door-handle rattling, and I felt the weight of Sue's eyes on
me, with the same expression they bore the day I stumbled out of the freezing
ocean carrying the empty phial that had contained my mother's ashes, while my
vision remained fixed on the door. Resolute and undeterred, I was set at last for
The latch clicked open, the knob turned, the door swung open, and a short,
plump, female kindergarten teacher walked out of the bathroom and into X's
room to make some photo-copies.
I stopped writing music. I needed to explore this land of the unconscious welling
within me, this primitive wilderness for which my professional self, layered by
centuries of civilization, was unsuited. I knew too much: when you master a craft
everything becomes forseeable. Instinctively I longed for fresh vistas, I desired
the shock of surprise. I needed to find some primal self by renouncing
everything I had become, for this raw core of my being might be at home in the
Void, might even make peace with the Monster.
And so it was, without training, technique or talent, without even a clear idea of
what I was doing, but giddy with vague hope and drunk on the sensuous beauty
of color, that I began my new life, as a painter.
Hans Hofmann died in 1966, the year I sat for my charcoal sketch. He had been
teaching and painting in Greenwich Village since the '30's, and so it's possible
that, on some summer afternoon, the stickball hero who was to become my
father smashed a home run through his studio window, causing the artist's hand
to jerk, with unexpected results he found charming, as much on account of the
serendipitous circumstances as for the aesthetic effect. Or perhaps, instead, he
was distressed, interpreting the action as a hostile warning by some
conservative faction to desist in his experiments in abstraction, in which case he
felt the same fear and anger as Titus Androgynus must have experienced 1,200
years earlier, returning to work one morning to find his frescoes white-washed by
the iconoclasts, the decapitated heads of marble strewn about the sanctuary.
Sitting for that portrait, I had worries of my own. The broad streets and busy
sidewalks created in me a sensation of vague discomfort, and the thought of
my father's boyhood friends, those urchin offspring of poor Italian immigrants
with names like Sante Soup and Amerigooch, filled me with apprehension, an
irrational fear of encountering them, preserved from the passage of time, in their
knickers and caps, with their sharp tongues and flying fists.
On top of that, a visit to my Nana was a relatively rare event, and this, combined
with her strange volatility as well as my dim awareness of discord between her
and my mother, made it impossible for me to relax.
She never completely forgave my father for abandoning the seminary, and
marrying a Greek only made things worse. He was positioned between an older
brother, whose status as first-born was his most distinguishing feature, and a
younger brother who, by choosing to live, as an adult, two flights below his
parents, enabled and encouraged into his late middle age his mother's
This younger brother we knew as Uncle Anthony, a visit to whose apartment on
such a day formed part of our routine. My siblings and I could never understand
our father's air of impatience and dismissiveness during these brief episodes,
as his "kid brother" chattered at us with a kind of merry sarcasm, adopting a
stilted, clucking tone one might one might use to amuse a very small child but
which we found absurd.
"And do the children like my painting?" he would chortle. "It's all done with my
fingers, and I used mostly toothpaste!"
We didn't: it seemed a mess, and we could not fathom why this man who daily
donned a judge's robes and dispensed justice with admirable assurance would
wish, in his free time, to sully himself and smear such nonsense.
But what was my father's opinion? He epitomized the free-thinking, self-made
man who took the best from his ethnic upbringing while refusing its limitations.
He made himself a scholar, a linguist, an opera buff - but there are limits: it was
Verdi he adored, not Varese, Rembrandt, not Rothko. My uncle's
Post-Impressionistic foray certainly left him unmoved.
Much later, as a doctoral student, I was to experience this inflexibility, as I
viewed it, of my father's, on the subject of music. I presented him one day with a
recording of works by my composition mentor, eager for his opinion. The doubly
damning verdict - "He stinks - you're as good as him!" - was swift in coming, for it
was my father's assumption that anything he didn't understand was without
meaning, and anything he despised was worthless. And so it would have been
useless to try to persuade him that the very spirit of Romanticism he found so
uplifting in 19th century music and literature found its apotheosis in mid-20th
century abstract painting, an art consecrated to freedom, individual expression
and personal style.
The last time I saw my grandmother I was about 20, and though I made this visit
without my father, I nonetheless followed the old custom, stopping off at my
uncle's apartment before leaving. The same finger-painting still hung on the
wall, and its presence motivated me to inquire whether my uncle was familiar
with a New York-based painter I had learned of in an Art History course: Hans
Hofmann. I don't remember his response, but in any case Hofmann would have
been dead by that time, along with Rothko and Pollock, with Guston nearing his
end. Alcoholism, depression and suicide were the norm with this generation,
living as they did at the edge of an abyss, teetering between the sublime and the
ridiculous, harried by doubt and starved for sympathy. In the absence of
comforting conventions, Rothko and Pollock took refuge in increasingly
consistent styles, the former, with his floating rectangles, becoming associated
with "color-field" painting and latter, with his famous "drip-paintings," inspiring
the "gestural" technique. These signature styles, emblematic of increasingly
intractable ideologies of art, replete with critical theories but half-understood by
the painters, ultimately became prison-cells from which escape could only come
Hofmann was different. It probably had to do with his background: he came of
age in the Europe of Les Fauves and Picasso, Kandinsky and Mondrian, and he
professed a lifelong antipathy to style, an unending desire to explore the
unknown, and, however abstract his results might appear, an allegiance to
nature as the source of inspiration. He died in a blaze of glory, shocking the
world in his eighth decade with a flurry of masterpieces and a marriage to their
29 year old dedicatee.
To walk these Village streets now is to realize how little of the spirit of a
neighborhood abides across the years, as if the bricks and the cement were too
barren for thoughts and feelings to take root in, while the modern inhabitants
come and go without that vital exchange whereby a sense of continuity, a sort of
oral history, can develop.
And even I, despite my efforts to reanimate this place, to recollect my
experiences, to record what I have learned, to speculate on what might have
been - even I find myself in the end confronting an impassable wall, facing an
insoluble mystery: There is a face that I seek, an image behind those charcoal
sketches, the form of the unknown artist who bequeathed, in lieu of his own
visage, the portrait of another that speaks all the same, somehow, of himself.
And as the garbage truck drives off I realize, with a start, that, in my selfishness
and in my haste, I have consigned what may be the final remnants of another
human spirit to oblivion.
Of Titus Androgynus nothing remains. His frescoes, white-washed beyond
recognition, resemble a series of winter landscapes inspired by his sojourn to
Mount Athos, while the tale of his existence lies hidden as beneath the
snow-drifts of those inaccessible heights.
Even his name is a fantasy I must fashion since, customarily, the Byzantine artist
left his work unsigned, like the theologians of that era, spurning originality and
innovation, preserving tradition, so that, as with the chance mutations that occur
perennially in the cycles of plant and animal reproduction, sporadic and random
variations appear from one generation to the next, resulting in a stylistic
evolution unconscious, imperceptible, and constant.
With no help from history, then, if I wish to speak of this man at all, I need to
construct an arbitrary fiction - say, that the artist is left-handed - what Slovoj
Zizeck calls a primordial lie on which to ground my narrative, and out of which
truth might emerge. And immediately, as I begin to form the fictional image of the
painter, as this arbitrary detail of his left-handedness spawns other details that
seem less and less arbitrary, more logical, even inevitable, as the fictional work
reveals its own inner consistency, I feel a kinship, unsolicited, unanticipated, with
the real artist, dead and forgotten, whom I sense having had these thoughts,
having chosen as I must choose, in the face of infinite possibilities, pondering,
perhaps,the image of the Transfiguration on Mount Tabor, likening himself, with
a mixture of excitement and guilt, to the unknowable God, cloaked in swirling
chaos, deciding to let be the light.
He pauses with his brush in the air, wondering what God would say. The
iconoclasts would contend that God, being immaterial, would have no mouth,
thus wouldn't say anything, and Titus Androgynus concedes a certain logic in
this. But there are dangers in abstract theorizing of which his age bore painful
witness. For the veneration of icons, so characteristic of Byzantine piety, had
been, by turns, violently repressed and encouraged with enthusiasm, according
to the sympathies of the changing emperors who evidenced, in this conflict, a
growing fascination with cruelty, and an impressive ingenuity in the
administration of punishment. Perhaps, the painter thought, if Jesus had a face,
and that face, both stern and compassionate, were gazing down from the apse
of Hagia Sophia, the politicians and the populace, the scheming eunuchs and
fanatical monks, would be less prone to maim and to blind, to exile and to
murder, their fellow man.
A face, then. He begins to trace an outline and, in the pleasure of this activity,
his mind gives way to his hand. Large, almond eyes appear, a long and graceful
nose: to his surprise his Uncle Thaddeus, notorious for his noisy flatulence and
horse-gambling, begins to take shape; Titus Androgynus is amused to imagine
what his aunt would think, having travelled at Easter-time, from the far end of
Constantinople, as, entering the basilica, she knelt in the pew, making the sign
of the cross from right to left as the Greeks do, lifting her gaze toward the holy
images that were not, properly speaking, objects of worship, but symbols (as
John of Damascus insisted in his eloquent defence of their efficacy) - symbols
that mediated between the world of sense and the realm of spirit - what would
his Aunt Sophy think to discover, floating in the midst of the martyrs and the
saints, her corpulent husband, haloed in glory, bedeck in diadems?
Of course, Titus was aware of God's injunction to the Israelites to avoid all
graven images, the injunction that formed, in fact, the cornerstone of the
iconoclast argument. But Scripture also teaches that man is formed in the image
of God, and besides, through the miracle of the Incarnation, the Word (the
unspeakable Word, the inconceivable Deed, the unimaginable Image) became
flesh, establishing that bond between creation (right down to the palettes and
paintbrushes) and Creator, investing the objects of art with symbolic significance.
But it was precisely this, the subtle nature of the symbolism, that those obtuse,
literal-minded image-smashers failed to comprehend. The Greek-speaking,
Eastern Fathers of the Church had elaborated, over centuries, a system of
apophatic, negative theology that attempts to suggest the divine, to evoke the
ineffable, through provocative paradox. Thus Dionysius the Areopagite, in his
Mystical Theology, exclaims, "Guide us to that topmost height of where the
mysteries of heavenly truth lies hidden in the dazzling obscurity of the secret
silence, outshining all brilliance with the intensity of their darkness." So just as,
beyond the visible beauty of this world lies an ultimate Beauty, so different from
that which we see as best to be described by its opposite, so the elegant
symmetry, the hieratic forms, the discrete, unmodulated colors and
quasi-geometric patterns formed upon the garments in the mosaics point toward
the Abyss, toward a Godhead shapeless and invisible, floating in a cacophonous
And just as the unknowable God can be approached through a study of the
works he has fashioned, so the life of the man history calls Dionysius
Areopagite, about which no reliable information has survived, can be
investigated indirectly, through his writings. And here we find an enigma: Titus
Androgynus and his contemporaries accepted on faith the claim of Dionysius to
be the companion of Saint Paul and an eye-witness to the apostolic tradition, but
modern scholarship finds evidence that his work, showing signs of the influence
of fifth century Neo-Platonism, should be dated several hundreds years later.
What then? A fraud? A pious fiction by some sun-dazzled desert monk? No
matter: upon this fertile lie sprouts a luxurious garden of mystical theology from
Maximus Confessor to Gregory Palamas, while, like Schumann's dual-personas,
Florestan and Eusebius, this alter-ego made by the anonymous zealot,
endowing his work with the necessary status of authenticity, looms larger than,
eclipses, the mere man that he was born.
Now it's I who pause, pen in hand, transported on the magical train of thought
across millenia, and wonder: was Mark Rothko having fun at our expense? Was
Jackson Pollock hoaxing us all along, laughing at our theories of the sublime?
Or, out in California, what if Clifford Still's messianic rhetoric was calculated to
dupe us into taking seriously what was conceived from the outset as a prank?
Would I have to love these paintings less? Or could such duplicity serve better
than sincere intentions as a starting-point for transcendental art?
A paradox, like those beloved of the Areopagite. Beloved because the
reasonings of philosophy, expressed in logical propositions, are inadequate to
our experience, at the core of which is mystery.
The art of Titus Androgynus was nourished on such paradoxes: that God is
three and God is one, that God is immanent and God is transcendent, that Jesus
is human and Jesus is divine, born of Mary and eternally pre-existent as
world-creating Word, that there is a divine plan, but that men are free.
Logic is repulsed by these formulations, but our hearts know their value, and are
grateful for poetry, for painting, where the paradoxes of thought are resolved on
the canvas, as on a primordial battleground of creation - but on the condition that
we are free of preconception, unburdened by style or technique, innocent as a
primitive, enchanted like a child, free to find our way, as death approaches, back
to our unborn dreams, back to the womb of the nascent universe...
In the end, the iconophiles were victorious, and Titus Androgynus was able to
return to his work without further interruption. Some of his paintings he found
unspoiled; most were damaged irreparably. In some cases he would attempt to
remove the layer of white-wash, troubling not to erase the underlying image -
and surrender after a while to the futility of the endeavor. A sleepy acolyte, a
diffident nun, or a curious parishioner, passing by under these circumstances,
would have seen the dejected artist facing a formless entanglement of white
brush strokes, executed with passionate haste, and behind it, barely perceptible,
like harbingers of a latent image, a pair of eyes searching for a face in the mirror
of the world.
In the archives of the school of the Church of the Good Shepherd, on the
northern tip of Manhattan Island, there is a photograph of my fifth grade class,
taken around the same time my portrait was sketched. And whereas I have been
persuaded through the contemplation of Titus Androgynus and Hans Hofmann
that a picture can synthesize the dichotomies of language, making accessible
higher realms of truth, as I look upon this old photograph of my childhood
friends, I realize, conversely, how opaque an image can be, how closed its inner
import must remain to anyone innocent of the stories encased within those
mischievous faces, and I am led afresh to an appreciation of the power of
language to penetrate the heavy husk of reality, revealing something of its
sweet, interior essence.
The neighborhood of Inwood was then comprised almost entirely of
Irish-Americans, and all these years later, confronting this picture, I can still reel
off the names of my classmates - Dennis Dougherty, William McCutcheon,
Timothy Scarry and Francis Carmichael, James Murphy and James Ford (my
two closest companions), Patrick Lynch, Steven Hayward, James McNamara,
My schoolmates inculcated in me early on the belief that life, without the
constant leaven of humor, was shamefully dull; there was a kind of moral
imperative to make mischief, to buck against the system, to risk punishment (for
the modern clergy were as ingenious as, if less severe than, the ancient
Byzantines) in the name of a wild and unfocused need for freedom. I did not
know as a child that this zaniness I found so entertaining might in some measure
be accountable to the secret disarray of my friends' homes in which the abuse of
alcohol, though inspired by concerns less existential than those which beset the
Abstract Expressionists, wreaked comparable havoc.
In the elaborate hierarchy that develops in a schoolroom, everyone becomes
known for something - toughness, brains or good looks - or sloppiness, obesity,
myopia. The popular ones would vie for the presidency, a position whose main
function was to monitor the class during those brief episodes when the teacher
needed to leave the room. In such circumstances our leader's choices were
clear: he could either enforce a semblance of order by "taking names" or he
could effectively abdicate his role, instituting thereby a state of pandemonium,
guarded over by a lookout whose job it was to alert us all to the imminent return
of the teacher: in a flash we'd be back in our seats, and the good woman would
enter a silent classroom filled with panting, red-faced children, their blue neckties
askew, while a book-bag teetered from the ceiling lights.
Occasionally, if a child was shy and possessed no visibly outstanding features
or remarkable quirks, he might manage to get by for years largely unnoticed.
Patrick Lynch was such a boy, small and chubby, with little eyes set close
together and light brown hair that, were it not cropped, seemed ready to stand
straight up. The class photograph shows a placid face, congruent with my
impression that he passed his days happily, content in quiet obscurity - until the
day his father decided to invite his son's classmates to the family candy store
after hours for complementary snacks.
If Sister Laetitia from the Girls Department had eloped with Brother Gregory we
could not have been more amazed, and if old Father Michel, the pastor, had
proclaimed the Second Coming was imminent, that the Heavenly Jerusalem
would descend to earth like a bride adorned for her husband, our only thought
would have been, can it wait until the weekend so we can visit Lynch's store?
Instantly a celebrity, Patrick resembled one of those nocturnal animals that
burrow their homes in the cool dirt, who has wandered, blinking and disoriented,
into a sunlit field; recalling his happiness, I am led to wonder what could have
motivated his father to such an exceptional action. Where we assumed benign
indifference did he recognize in his child a sadness he sought to assuage?
Was his wish to catapult his son to sudden preeminence, thereby fulfilling an
unexpressed desire for recognition, a desire shared by the father, trapped, as he
might have felt, in a menial existence inadequate to his vague, romantic
We didn't bother to ask. As it turns out I was unable to attend the event; in fact I
bear no recollection of hearing of it from my friends, and the absence of any
further memories on this subject inclines me to believe that the whole plan
petered out. It's even possible, in this matter, that the Lynches were behaving
with the kind of poetic delicacy of the Hindus who, inviting us, say, to tea, on a
certain day and hour, have in mind nothing so tedious and clumsy as an actual
meeting, but the idea of sharing tea which, abiding undisturbed in the realm of
imagination, can remain as pleasant, and last as long, as one might wish.
And so it has been with me: the unconsummated dream of endless sweets took
its place in my heart alongside those other fantasies of childhood, the more
alluring for being stigmatized as unhealthy, as taboo. For does there not persist
in us, through the years, a secret wish to enter some dark and unattended room
and to taste therein some forbidden pleasures, to enjoy them to an excess,
disdainful of consequences, oblivious to their harmful effects, a wish we are not
flattered to find within us, like the desire that wells up in the honorable old
gentleman of Death in Venice for the beautiful boy he espies on the beach, a
wish that threatens to topple a lifetime of discipline - is this monstrosity love? -
and that, rising so unexpectedly from our depths, makes us realize, with a start,
how little we know of our nature?
But if the visit to Lynch's store had occurred, if I had eaten my fill of
chocolate-covered cherries and cream-filled pies, its lasting legacy would have
been the memory of indigestion and the onset of cynicism. But as the wish,
remaining unfulfilled, continues to exert its illusory attraction, it can serve, these
many years later, as the subject of artistic composition. And so I can see, in my
mind's eye, though I have not yet succeeded in its realization, a canvas strewn
with streaks of pink and orange pigment, irresponsibly gay, on a bright yellow
background: Lynch's Candy Store, and just as Debussy said of La Mer, that he
sought to fashion, not the sounds of the sea, but those feelings it elicits, I would
say of this picture that its contemplation should give rise, not to the taste of
those forbidden sweets, but to the emotions aroused by the prospect of their
If my friends taught me to laugh, my teachers taught me to pray. On the first
Friday of every month we were relieved of our routine and herded to the church
next door to sit in the coolness and the dark of the pews and have our
confessions heard. As I waited my turn I would gaze, as my teacher bid me,
upon the carven image of Jesus, pondering by turns the mystery of his
incarnation, the agony of his crucifixion and the depth of his love for me, whose
sins might keep him nailed to the Cross, as Rilke suggests, forever, this Son of
Man whose wanderings formed a white thread running through the darkness of
antiquity, this rabbi, wise beyond his years, brave and gentle in a brutal age,
pregnant with his mission and prescient of his doom, this Son of God, debunked
by a modern world that cannot understand that he became true through our
But ours was a world at once more sacred and more profane, and while I
wrestled with theology, my classmates, who, my father explained to me, being of
Celtic ancestry, were but recently converted from barbarism, would slip beyond
the sanctuary to a hidden vestibule and taste that sweet wine, mingled with
water, which, through the miracle of transubstantiation, was to become the
life-giving blood of Christ.
Little did I know at this time that, some ten years hence, I would be
accompanying a new generation of Moriarity's and McGinty's in this same
church, as organist for a boy's choir, directed by a priest of saintly dedication
and rudimentary musical training. In the spirit of those medieval masters who
used to appropriate from secular sources any melody they found useful,
replacing the bawdy lyrics with pious poetry, this holy father was in the habit of
transforming those light waltzes from Viennese operetta he loved into so many
spirited Ave's and Hosanna 's, inciting the incorrigible choristers to sway in
rhythm as they sang.
Eventually I was called upon to replace this good priest, to the consternation of
most parishioners, whose musical tastes were even more simple than his, but
who had no trouble in recognizing an honest and trustworthy man. With
ambitious idealism I instituted a program of arcane and recondite music,
including some poly-tonal improvisations for which I was berated, like Messiaen
in the Cathedral of Notre Dame, by more than one irate rosarian, who thought
they heard the devil in the organ pipes.
By that time my old friends were already declining, for, sadly, those early years
were their happiest: the upheavals of adolescence and the quotidian concerns of
adulthood became for them a tightening noose; they were like good-hearted
outlaws harassed to extinction by the encroachment of modern law, fairy elves
forcibly removed from their home in the enchanted forest of childhood. Alcohol
and drugs, prison and suicide, have called them, or else they eke out marginal
existences, and I am led to believe that the fault lies more in their stars than in
themselves, these exuberant imps, betrayed by the sophisticated hypocrisy of a
world that, long ago, bartered happiness for the assurances of dull
Where is this story headed (you may be wondering) and how will it end? I have
proceeded, in the task of writing, as I might in forming an abstract painting,
allowing ideas to flow one into another, melting the edges, discovering, as I go,
fortuitous connections. And if I fail to reach a satisfactory conclusion, I succeed
at least in demonstrating a creative process: the non-image on the canvas is
more myself than what I find in the mirror.
But the morning is passing! The hum of the garbage truck has given way to the
mingled chime of school-children at recess. I must rouse myself, descend from
the bedroom window, and attend to my tasks. And with this realization comes
the solution to my dilemma: the story ends here because I've other things to do -
which is to say a work of art arises from the tension between our intuition of the
infinite and the constraints imposed by the dimensions of the canvas, the
spectrum of visible colors, the finite nature of our existence.
And so I gather my paints and my brushes and place them within my reach; I
spread a cloth beneath my feet and begin, without hesitation or fear, to paint, as
Sue has requested, the four walls of my living room.
But this is torture, this mindless, mechanical motion; I am like a reluctant
iconoclast, white-washing my own soul with every stroke. Resentment and
impatience lead to haste: soon there is paint on the floor, the ceiling, the
furniture, my head. Irony of ironies, to paint, at last, yet to be unable to express
my hidden self, unable as well to escape my self through improvisation. Those
vistas I seek, home to unsuspected beauty and happiness, are inaccessible,
shut out by the iron gates of the perfunctory.
To be honest, though, I should admit that, were I relieved of this burden, and
able to paint as I wish, I'd immediately feel confounded by too much freedom, I'd
be dying for direction, troubled by an abundance of choice. We spend our lives,
it seems, resenting what's imposed on us and fleeing from independence, like
anarchic revolutionaries who, tiring of the chaos they've unleashed, hasten to
recall their banished king, or like atheists grown old and feeble
who turn, in panic, to the consolation of conventional religion.
I think with admiration of the primitives, in whose world the functional has not
been divorced from the decorative, and the idea crosses my mind to mingle a
magenta arabesque, to dribble some apricot squiggles, enlivening thereby these
dull, white walls. But I am swiftly dissuaded by a second thought, that of Sue
walking through the door, pausing in mid-step the way she does for emphasis,
hands on hips, turning her head slowly from the wall to me and back again with a
look of disbelief.
I wish to escape this mess, to rise like some great, dark, solitary bird such as are
found in the last paintings of Milton Avery, passing over the earth before my final
departure, depositing a mark, a sign of myself, a big, wet splat wherein are
contained all my thoughts, my dreams, even my favorite foods - a mark like that
single, lightning-word Byron seeks but cannot find, in the voluptuous immediacy
of paint - and be gone.
I know beforehand I will fail: I will never say what I wish. I will always be the
wrong man in the wrong place making the wrong painting. Or maybe not wrong
but incomplete: perhaps that which we call intuition, and in which we place our
trust, is a distant echo, a fleeting affirmation, of the infinite multi-verse whose
fullness is achieved through eternity, and whose ineffable image we approach
through the indefinite, the mysterious, the rhapsodic. It is impossible, but we
must paint, and live, and love. Then come thou, dark daimon, and take me
wither thou wouldst.
I emerge from these thoughts to discover I've completed painting the living room
walls. (Easy to break things, difficult to make things, as the iconoclasts used to
say.) I survey the scene with ambivalence: without the alchemy of art, the paint
is merely sticky and irritating, and its odor I find oppressive. But Sue will be
pleased, at least.
Yet there's something else in the room: an image is taking shape, struggling
from behind the freshly painted walls, an image - not of the boy in the sweater,
nor of the man in the window, but a new image, the one we could not have
anticipated, for it was fashioned through the labor of writing, it was formed
through the act of reading. See: it rises now, manifest in the completion of this
work: it is the author, a new me - here I am!
The story that has just come to its end has been composed, not on the east
coast of North America, where it takes place, but across the continent in a small
town in southern California where, along with Sue, I am visiting family.
I am lying on my back beneath the morning sky, cobalt blue and already hot, in
the swimming pool of our hotel, propelling myself with a frog-like kicking motion.
The forty-five degree angle my body forms in relation to the water allows me to
wear my eve-glasses without wetting them too much: I look foolish but I can see:
Beyond the black gate of the swimming pool lie the walls of the hotel, half-hid by
those prehistoric palms that astound the visitor; rising above this I see the
grating of our balcony, garnished with plumerias and surmounted by the sloping
tin of the pink, sun-paled roof. Behind the pool on the opposite side, a thick wall
separates us from the sights, but not the sounds, of the highway. If, awakening
from a dream, I were to find myself here, I might think myself in Morocco, or
perhaps Sicily, in a luxurious palace rather than an economy hotel, and imagine
that those Fords I hear are Ferraris, filled with celebrities and pursued by the
This shows ignorance, I know, but also innocence, for while an experienced,
wealthy traveler would quickly find a host of subtle clues that would lead him to
an accurate appraisal of his environment, it is possible that his preconceptions,
his prejudices, would obscure from his vision, like that thin layer of smog that
darkens the Los Angeles skyline, the modest beauty of this locale.
Within my hotel room, hanging on the wall behind te bed, is an abstract painting.
I am capable, in a limited way, of detecting, in this work, the influences of both
Cubism and Kankinsky, synthesized and reinterpreted in an indigenous,
west-coast manner that calls to mind the late works of Richard Diebenkorn. But
this kind of analysis is like explaining a symphony by Beethoven as no more than
a mixture of Mozart, Haydn, and a headstrong temperament, like explaining a
person merely as a combination of genetic inheritance and acquired culture.
The painting is alive, and I see in its various aspects a harmonious whole, a
unique, miraculous entity.
I find it enchanting: rich in emotions that have no verbal equivalents, redolent
with meanings as compelling as they are untranslatable. But my appreciation is
tempered by the disappointing awareness that this is schlok-art, mass-produced,
a fact I had not the perspicuity to infer, but that was thrust on me last night when
I stumbled upon a perfect double of this painting in the "clearance" section of
some "home-goods" store.
I think I will begin a new career: a merry life, not only abandoning my musical
occupation but laying aside (at least for now) my frustrating essays in painting -
a new career as an art-collector, critic and exhibitor. I will travel across the land
in search of unknown masterpieces of abstract painting, on the condition that
each costs no more than twenty dollars; I will visit junk stores and yard-sales,
Wallmarts and Targets. I will select what touches me, analyze, extol, arrange it
all, encouraging, through my unorthodox exhibitions, fresh eyes and open
minds, challenging the canon of high art, while making of my life a heady
adventure, not lacking in a touch of comedy, nor in an element of danger (as, for
example, if, in a bizarre reversal, some well-reputed artist should attempt to
emulate the style of one of my beauties, hoping to pawn off this fake upon the
unsuspecting art-world as legitimate pseudo-art)...
...and die, if it is possible, confused and happy, in the middle of some work I find
engaging, perplexing, enriching, a work whose unfinished form, after all, is the
best self-portrait I can imagine.