Here is the latest chapter I have managed to decipher from the collection of scrawlings on various notebooks that were sent to me by my former college roommate, David G.
As before, here’s my disclaimer regarding David: He wrote in somewhat haphazardly and often left parts of the manuscript incomplete or with notes to himself on how to possibly improve his choice of words. I will try to recreate this mode of his by using brackets and the bold font [Like this]. I have also attempted to correct some of his spelling errors, but not all.
Form Your Troika – CHAPTER 04
I have had three pen pals in my life. My longest running correspondence has been with Al. Her real name is Allison, but she simply liked to be called Al. I can only imagine the number of jokes she had to deflect when that Paul Simon song came out.
Al attended my high school for our freshman and sophomore years. We had mutual friends, but we were never that close. In our junior year, she moved to Nebraska. In that summer before she left, we held a farewell party for her. It was at that gathering that Al and I had our first in-depth talk. We continued it as I drove her home and we finished it in her driveway around midnight. It would be my awful sense of timing that we would connect right before she would leave. We exchanged addresses and we promised to write.
The United States Census Bureau has concluded that when two high-schoolers promise that they will write, the average number of letters actually sent is around 4.5.
Al and I definitely shattered that average.
Through high school and college (where she attended the University of Pennsylvania), a letter was either sent or received every two months. In addition to the words on the page, a tradition arose where we began to attempt and outdo each other with the artwork on our envelopes.
In this era of e-mail, I feel something has been lost. I grant that mail delivered via bits and bytes is easier and faster, but I can hear Al talk when I see her handwriting in all of the letters that I have saved.
Plus, I can still marvel at her artistic skills. Of the examples I can share with you is the envelope where my address was inserted into a crossword grid. There was the drawing where my address was looking at its reflection in a mirror. My personal favorite was the one where the front of the envelope resembled a maze. Al had “solved” the maze and the line that went from START to FINISH spelled out my address. I can only give my utmost respect not only to Al for her amazing creativity, but also to the mail carrier who had to decipher these works of art.
Sadly, I can’t recall any of my creations.
When’s the last time you printed out and saved an email [Is it "email" or "e-mail"?] from a friend?
In our junior year of college, she wrote me a letter that posed the question that would become the precursor of my To Death List. She asked me what were the three things I wanted to accomplish before I died. However, she threw in a restriction. She said that one item had to be a long-shot, one item had to involve a physical act, and one item had to deal with art.
This question was almost as big a challenge as the time she wrote me a letter, ripped it up, and I had to fit the pieces together like a jigsaw puzzle to see what she had written.
The first two items of Al’s request were easy for me. After a few years of searching and hitting dead ends, my long-shot item was finding my biological parents. As for the physical act, you tell me what a male twenty year old virgin would want to do. Having sex filled that slot.
I was stuck on the art category. Before I would have a chance to write Al, I was going on a road trip to Chicago with Ophelia to visit some friends of hers. I was pleased by this outing because I would have the chance to visit the Art Institute of Chicago. This museum housed George Seurat’s masterpiece of pointillism, A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte. I first saw this painting courtesy of the movie Ferris Bueller’s Day Off. In their adventure around the Windy City, the trio of Ferris (Matthew Broderick), [what was the female character's name?] (Mia Sara), and Cameron (Alan Ruck) hit this museum. On one of my favorite cinematic moments that does not involve dialogue, Cameron is seen staring at Seurat’s painting. In a series of increasing close-ups, the camera switches between Cameron and the little girl in white who stands in the center of the work. I am sure that this moment is meant to convey some sort of internal transformation of Cameron, but it eludes me.
Art is like that at times.
When the message conveyed by the work doesn’t reach the receiver. Is this the fault of the artist or the viewer (or listener or reader)?
When I answer that question I’ll let you know how many angels can dance on the head of a pin.
Fortunately such questions will not plague me for much longer.
Damn, I’ve digressed again. Let’s return to the Art Institute of Chicago circa 1989, shall we?
While Ophelia spent some quality time with her friends from high school who now attended Northwestern University, I stole away and managed to find my way to the museum courtesy of that epitome of public transportation, the “el”.
I did see Seurat’s work and it was also here that I first saw Claude Monet’s Cliff Walk at Pourville, which to my eyes (and please feel free to disagree) is the finest example of Impressionist painting that graces any public or private wall.
Neither of these paintings nor any of the other dozens of pieces of art I saw that April day stopped me in my tracks.
As I was walking away from the Monet, I glimpsed the backside of a larger-than-life size bronze sculpture of a man in a robe. I came around to the front and looked up at the man’s face.
I was dumbstruck.
Up until that point, I didn’t know it was possible to freeze an emotion in bronze. I stared hard at the face trying to figure out if this man was scared, sad, determined, resigned, or fearful. It was entirely possible that all these feelings and a great deal more were being portrayed.
I pried my eyes away from that visage to look at the information card. It told me I was looking at one of the six figures of Auguste Rodin’s The Burghers of Calais. The card gave some background data on the story of the Burghers.
During the Hundred Years’ War, where England and France were having one of their usual skirmishes, the French city of Calais fell to the English forces in 1347. Edward III, the guy sitting on the English throne, offered to spare the populace if the city’s leaders, the Burghers, would surrender themselves. Because giving up wasn’t enough, Ed-the-third mandated that the leaders present themselves to the English nearly naked and with nooses around their necks.
Rodin’s sculpture freezes this moment when the Burghers walk out of the city on their way to greet death.
I was dumbstruck and stunned.
At the age of twenty, death had never touched me. No one in my immediate family had passed away and I had not lost any friends. Death was as alien to me as sex.
Now here I was staring at the face of a man who was staring at his own death – a death he was volunteering for. At my age, that type of sacrifice is unheard of. Yet here I was, face-to-face with a visage captured in bronze that was evoking just that type of feeling.
This lone figure is a man holding a giant key (presumably a key to Calais), dressed in a simple one-piece garment, and with a noose around his neck. The stoic look in this gentleman’s face is stunning to view. His frozen bronze frown, along with the hollow far-off look in the eyes, appears to denote an almost resigned sense of calm or acceptance. This is a man who seems to be saying, without words, “Let’s simply do this.”
For the first time, a piece of art made me feel an emotion I had never experienced. At no point in my life until now had I ever seen such a personification of the fatalistic acceptance of one’s own impending demise. In that instant, I knew the answer to Al’s third item. Since there were five other figures in Rodin’s piece, it was now apparent to me that before I died, I would need to…
View The Burghers of Calais in total
The rapture and revelation I felt at that moment upon viewing that statue would cool as the days passed and I would give Al’s challenge no more than a glancing thought until a year later when serendipity led me to the musical genius that is Sara Hickman. A year after that discovery (we’re now in 1991 for those of you following along on a calendar), I realized I had no chance of finding a complete set of Rodin’s martyrs. So, as the representative of the “art” category on Al’s list, I decided to scratch The Burghers of Calais and replace it with seeing Sara Hickman in concert.
Rodin’s masterpiece would be reinstated, as Item Six, when the middle of 1996 rolled around and the list morphed from Al’s original concept of a To Do List to the To Death List that it is now.
[Do I want to discuss going to the Rodin show with Desiree in San Diego and seeing The Thinker, The Kiss, Balzac, Gates of Hell, but no Burghers?]
[When did Salvador Dali exhibit appear at the Hirshhorn?]
Sherman, set the WABAC Machine, and fast forward to [month] of 2001 [?]. Living in Maryland, I was close enough to the National Mall that I would often spend at least one weekend a month visiting the various building that comprised the Smithsonian Institution. In the first years I was on the East Coast, I spent most of my Mall time at the Air and Space Museum, the National History Museum, and the American History Museum. I would make the occasional foray into both wings of the National Art Gallery, but I usually kept those visits to the various memorials (Washington, Lincoln, Jefferson) and the three museums in the preceding sentence.
I saw in the “Weekend” section of The Washington Post that the Hirshhorn Museum was hosting an exhibit of works by Salvador Dali. I had always walked by this building while going from the Smithsonian Metro station to the Air and Space Museum, but I had never experienced it. Here, with the Dali exhibit, was my invitation to enter this circular gallery and see what it had to offer.
The exhibit was small but pleasant and gave me the chance to see more works by Dali other than The Persistence of Memory. After viewing the other pieces of art inside the Hirshhorn, I walked outside and looked at the other sculptural works as the full name of this locale actually is the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculptural Garden.
You know where this is already going, don’t you?
After completing the circle of the main grounds, I walked out onto Jefferson Drive and saw a sign across the street that stated the sculptural gardens continued. I strolled across the one-way avenue and walked down the right-hand side stairs.
I turned left and there he was.
The face that had pierced me in Chicago was again staring through me.
He was not alone.
Sharing his pedestal were the five other Burghers.
I approached slowly as if any sudden movement of mine would cause the metal men to scatter like pigeon on the sidewalk.
Standing in the foreground and to the right of this work was the man who had haunted me in Chicago. To the right, and also in the foreground, was a man facing away from me. He also had a rope on him, but it was not quite around his neck. It was loosely draped over his left shoulder. His right arm gestures upward and he appears to be engaged in conversation with the Burgher to his right. In my mind, he is answering the question posed by the gentleman behind him. He seems to be saying, “What you would you suggest we do?” His acceptance of his fate seems less stoic than the man I saw in Chicago as this man is gesturing and being active.
The man doing the questioning (in the background all the way to the right…and let’s call him Six) has his left arm outstretched. His mouth is open and I can hear him pleading, “Isn’t there another way?” Tacit acceptance does not seem to be Six’s way.
To the right of Six and the center figure in the background is a man whose countenance seems to give off an impression of chagrined fatalism. His mouth, a mixture of a frown and smirk, seems to be transmitting his inner thought of “This is what must be done.” His eyes are not as hollow as the lone figure I saw in Chicago as if he is still having some debate or thoughts about his fate where as the Chicago bronze settled that inner argument long ago.
In the center of the work stands a heavily bearded man with a noose firmly around his neck. He is caught in the act of moving so his garment has fallen away from part of his body exposing his naked and gaunt left leg. His head is bowed and he looks tired, beaten, and worn down. However defeated he may be, he is still moving toward his destiny of sacrificing himself to save others. He has moved past the stoicism of Chicago-Statue into actual action. He is the only figure moving toward the viewer and, I believe, toward his death.
The last figure, all the way on the right and in the background is the complete opposite of the heavily bearded figure. This statue epitomizes despair. There is no stoic resolve, there is no questioning, there is no acceptance. This figure has both his hands covering his bowed head. It is nearly impossible to see this man’s face, but the hands and his stance convey his pain.
In one tableau, Rodin managed to capture some of the stages a person goes through when faced with death. Despair, questioning, answering, stoicism, acceptance, and action are all on display.
With three items on my To Death List completed, I found myself contemplating a question I had chosen to ignore.
How would I face my own death?
When faced with personal and troubling questions, I have found that the poetry of Sara Teasdale can be illuminating. It may not answer my question, but is that art’s purpose or ours?
So soon my body will have gone
Beyond the sound and sight of men,
And tho’ it wakes and suffers now,
Its sleep will be unbroken then;
But oh, my frail immortal soul
That will not sleep forevermore,
A leaf borne onward by the blast,
A wave that never finds the shore.
When the time came to do what I planned to do, would I face the prospect of my own non-existence with the stoic resolve of the man I first saw in Chicago, the acting acceptance of the heavily bearded man, the questioning of Six, or would I, when I “sleep forevermore”, cry, wail, and howl as I never find my shore?
Previous chapters from David can be read here (Chapter 00, Chapter 01, Chapter 02, Chapter 03).
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