[No, I’m serious. This thing goes on forever and doesn’t make much sense. You’d be MUCH better off just skipping to another post. Don’t say I didn’t warn you.]
Yesterday offered me a different catharsis than the one I was expecting.
I took a half-day off from work, so I could go into NYC for a showing of photos about the attempts at reconciliation in post-genocide Rwanda. The one-day showing was at the Salander-O’Reilly gallery on 79th St., and would include short speeches by Samantha Power and Philip Gourevitch. I read the latter’s book a few weeks ago, and was destroyed by it. As any reader of this blog can tell, I’ve been pretty death-obsessed in recent weeks/months. It’s been a combination of two things: current events in Iraq, Sudan and elsewhere, and the stresses of the day-job (three consecutive issues have had weird production schedules, so I’ve been going without any decompression-time till we finished the June issue last Thursday). Both of these factors have a lot of attendant effects.
I got to NYC early, so I stopped at the gallery (come back around 6pm, they told me), then walked across Fifth Ave. to Central Park. It was an absolutely gorgeous day: 75 degrees, a nice breeze, not a cloud in the sky. I put on my iPod and walked for a ways. It was around 3:30-4pm, and there were plenty of little kids practicing sports. Lines of kids threw undersized footballs to opposing lines of kids. Out in the Oval, some softballers were practicing, but there was plenty of open area. I settled under a tree, and a trio of college kids started playing frisbee nearby. Someone flew a blue-and-white checkered kite. It was idyllic. I read a book for a while, and otherwise just breathed in the spring.
Eventually, I decided to get up and visit the Metropolitan Museum of Art, back on 5th and 81st. I hadn’t been there since January 2003 (a month before I started typing up these virtual memories). It was my birthday (the 11th, for those of you who’ve been thinking of throwing a surprise party for me), and I got it into my head to spend that day at the Frick & the Met, checking out the paintings by Rembrandt. I wrote about my feelings for some of Rembrandt’s paintings in April 2003. It was a really wonderful birthday, even if I did spend it alone. I’d only seen a few of his paintings in person before, and the ones we have in NYC are just wondrous.
So yesterday, I went back to the Met. Like last year, I saved the Rembrandts for the end. This time, though, I lingered in the modern art halls, in the Lila Acheson wing, I think. I stared at several paintings by Mark Rothko. I’d never seen his paintings “in person” (you know what I mean) before, but I do remember goofing on them on principle, back in college.
I’ve been pretty biased against modern art for a while now, but I am man enough to recognize that some of that is just stupidity on my part. So I stared at several paintings by Rothko, not quite hearing that The Thievery Corporation was busy mixing and matching elements of the world’s musical traditions on my iPod. I felt enveloped. I thought about my old friend John, whose girlfriend once bought him a massive Rothko print that he couldn’t afford to frame. Normally, that sorta thing would’ve sent me tripping over a whole web of thoughts and associations, but it didn’t happen this time. But that’s not my unexpected catharsis. It was a heck of an experience, and I want to seek out more of his paintings.
Time started to slip, and I wanted to get back to the art gallery before too many people showed up (there was a writeup about the Rwanda event in Sunday’s New York Times, which meant a lot of people (relatively speaking) were likely to arrive. So I tried to hurry through the museum to the Old Masters, where I could commune with my best friend for a little while.
Unfortunately, I got lost in Byzantium (or at least the new exhibition on religious art of the Byzantines). Eventually, I made my way back to 19th century Europe, which gave way to August Sander’s photography (and memories of the time when I liked Richard Powers’ novels). Then the Old Masters. The Flemish style. The color and the shape arising out of darkness. R.’s mid-career portraiture, with its unnaturally vivid lighting, following the violent Bible tableaux. Out of the corner of my eye (just like Jan. 2003), I saw a self-portrait of R., through a doorway. Waited on it, gazing on Brueghel, van Eyck, Hals, etc.
He looks at me, ancient man forever alive.
The self-portrait at the Met doesn’t have the impact on me that the great one over at the Frick does. But that’s a more intimate space to begin with, and has those lovely Whistlers, Goyas, El Grecos. There, I see R. in golden robes, and it’s like seeing an old friend.
But that wasn’t it, either. I looked at the self-portrait, after contemplating Aristotle contemplating a bust of Homer. A Japanese man stood next to me, expertly sketching the self-portrait. I wanted to tell him how amazed I was by his drawing, but elected not to. I sat down and wrote for a little while.
Shortly, I headed for the exit, so I could get to the photo-gallery. On the way out, my eye was caught by a wing of the museum that I hadn’t visited since I was a child, and a dream from several weeks ago caught up with me. It was the Egyptians and death.
Earlier, walking from Park to Museum, I passed Cleopatra’s Needle, read the translated hieroglyphics, all praise to sun-god Ra. I thought about the circuitous route that its sister took to get to London, the trail of accidents and death that it blazed. I thought about two Saturdays ago, when thoughts of mortality just dominated my mind. Not hard to imagine: I’d finished Gourevitch’s book on the Rwandan genocide, and would soon start Murakami’s book on the Tokyo subway nerve-gas attacks.
The Egyptian wing drew me in. Celebration of the dead. Sarcophagi of gold. How it would contrast with the photos of lines of skulls in the Ntarama Church, 20 minutes into my future. I know this narrative isn’t making much sense, but I still haven’t caught up on sleep, and I need to get all this out. These are virtual memories: almost the real thing.
It was Anubis, the dog-headed guardian of the dead. That’s what I saw symbolically in a dream, weeks earlier, culmination of an evening freighted with death.
“Freighted with death.” Puts me in mind of another myth: The Nordic gods, and their end-of-the-world. A boat bearing fallen warriors comes out of the underworld, and it’s built of dead men’s fingernails. Death, traveling freight. I tend to draw these significances, these parallels of myths. It’s sorta the subject of a novel I want to write (but am too much of a pussy to sit down and work through).
When I came into the museum, I walked through the sunlit, white rooms of the ancient Greek art & artifacts. A passage from Thucydides graced one wall, quoting from Pericles’ funeral oration on the wonders of Athens. [It elides over the part where Pericles mentions the terrors that Athens has to inflict. I’ll talk about that more extensively sometime, as the election approaches. Remind me.] In contrast, the Egyptian wing was darkened in parts to keep fabrics and parchments from fading. With nearly no visitors, it was almost silent.
I felt like a shadow, and Rwanda still awaited.
I got to the gallery at 5:30. Photos were mounted, but no-one was in the main room. So I took my time, absorbing the images. The photographs weren’t of the massacre itself, but of the country eight years later, as Rwanda struggled (and still struggles) to reconcile itself with the presence of so many genocidaires.
I kept returning to one photo. Not of the carefully organized lines of skulls, nor of shed with shelves of femurs. Not the men in pink shirts and shorts, facing village-wide tribunals called Gacacas. Not the tall, trim-bearded prosecutor, holding a microphone and calling on townspeople to offer evidence against a woman accused of genocide. Not the Tutsis, holding old photos of murdered family members, alongside Polaroids of their remains.
The photo that caught me was from the prayer hall of the Ntarama Church. It was a color photo of a brick wall, with a window in the top left. The bricks at the bottom of the window frame were missing. Having read about the genocide, I could only imagine how those bricks were knocked out.
In the middle of the photo, there are two sacks. They look like linen, or a woven plastic, several feet tall, leaning upright against the brick wall. They are filled with bones. From the top of the sacks, skulls and pelvises protrude. To the viewer’s right, sitting on the floor beside the sacks, is a framed wall-hanging, in relief, of the Last Supper. It’s stylized, full figures sitting at strange angles, contorted to face Jesus, who’s breaking bread.
It’s the sacks. I look at them, and they contain these lives. I don’t know how to express it. I mean, most of my coworkers look at me sympathetically when I talk about this stuff, but they still seem to think, “But these are a bunch of Africans, you idiot.” I don’t mean to be unkind to them. They have families, and homes, and much more by way of roots than I have, and the time I spend thinking about this stuff is time they could spend doing something called living.
So I kept coming back to these sacks, and thought about the lives that were stuffed into them. The artistic/synthetic experiences I’d had at the Met were submerged now, overwhelmed by death in Africa. Walking among the Egyptians was a good preliminary, it seemed.
After a while, I went to a coffeeshop around the corner, and read the catalog for the exhibit. I came back to the gallery around 6:15, and found it filled with people. I was gratified that so many people turned out for something that we could all just easily have glossed over (thanks, NYT!). The speakers were supposed to “go on” (you know what I mean) at 6:30. I walked among the photos again, surrounded by a throng of people. It felt wrong to me that they were happy to see one another. The room felt like an antechamber of death, not a place for smiles.
I immediately felt guilty for having that reaction. Who was I to complain about someone else’s feelings? As you can tell, I was in a serious bind, or an emotional death-spiral, as I like to call it. I was second-guessing everydamnthing, feeling utterly out of place in the room (for no good reason), and otherwise suffering from the heebie-jeebies.
Ms. Power walked in, and I thought for a moment about introducing myself to her. I’d sent an e-mail to her Harvard account last week, asking for advice/suggestions about what a normal (ha-ha) person could do regarding the genocide in Sudan. I haven’t heard back from her, but I figure she’s a busy woman. In addition, many people in the crowd knew her and wanted to talk. So I walked among the photos, heard snippets of conversation, and felt soul-heavy. I was utterly adrift, staring at that photo of the sacks of bones, when the thought struck me, “Wouldn’t it be great to be out on the lawn in Central Park right now?”
And this huge smile broadened my face. That was it: The weight lifted away. I walked out of the gallery, went to the Park, relaxed in the evening breeze, watched people play softball, and listened to some music. The catharsis struck. All the tumult built to a head, and then dispersed in this realization that I need joy, too.
On the way back to my car, I called an old friend of mine who works in the city. I thought he might be working late and, as it turned out, he was. He thought I sounded strange (I did) on the phone, so he decided to stay a little later and we met for drinks. It was a great time. We caught up on the past few months, goofed around like we did 10 years ago in grad school, and rambled about sports, culture, art, and war.
I thought about all the friends I’ve fallen out of touch with this year. The war’s had something to do with it, as has the exigencies of our day-to-day lives. I’ve made several good friends this year, but last night I remembered how good it is to spend time with old friends.
So this is what I do when I take a half-day off from work. Sorry to ramble so much, but if I stop to edit this, I guarantee it’ll never get posted.