This August, I reconnected with a friend from college who in the intervening years had suffered a terrible tragedy, which is not my story to tell here. And it struck me how, after our meeting at the coffee shop, our hour and a half of conversation, I simply walked away. Got in my car and drove off. Shaken, to be sure. Sympathetic. But already thinking about the rest of my day, the things I had to do. And that seemed like another tragedy. How no one else can fully share another’s suffering. Others can sympathize, but they are not forced to live through it. They get to walk away.
And I remembered W.H. Auden’s famous poem — and one of my favorites — “Musee des Beaux Arts”
About suffering they were never wrong,
The Old Masters: how well they understood
Its human position; how it takes place
While someone else is eating or opening a window or just walking dully along;
How, when the aged are reverently, passionately waiting
For the miraculous birth, there always must be
Children who did not specially want it to happen, skating
On a pond at the edge of the wood:
They never forgot
That even the dreadful martyrdom must run its course
Anyhow in a corner, some untidy spot
Where the dogs go on with their doggy life and the torturer's horse
Scratches its innocent behind on a tree.
In Breughel's Icarus, for instance: how everything turns away
Quite leisurely from the disaster; the ploughman may
Have heard the splash, the forsaken cry,
But for him it was not an important failure; the sun shone
As it had to on the white legs disappearing into the green
Water; and the expensive delicate ship that must have seen
Something amazing, a boy falling out of the sky,
had somewhere to get to and sailed calmly on.
The line “But for him it was not an important failure” pretty well sums it up, I think. Nobody really cares as much about your tragedies or failures as you. Oh, people will empathize, they might really truly feel your pain. But then they move on, back into their own lives — as they must, as we all must — having, as Auden says so succinctly “somewhere to get to.”
Thinking about it, I felt tremendously sad, and looked again at the Breughel painting. It's shocking, how utterly inconsequential Icarus's death is, his miniscule splash only a footnote to the rest of the world as it plows relentlessly on. And I decided to paint the ship, so much lovelier, with its creamy wings of sail, than the cargo behemoths we have in this century.
It’s not finished, but I don’t really know how to wrap it up yet. And I have had an uneasy feeling while working on it that this type of painting is not my “real” work, that although parts of it were fun I was not hewing to my natural tendencies. By “this type of painting” I mean largely inventing the image (even though I do of course have the original painting as a reference). I have written before about this same discomfort, about how I am made uncomfortable working without tethers to something physically present.
Strangely, given complete freedom to make shit up, I feel anxious, thrown back on my own imaginative powers and finding them meager. It is only within the more straitened boundaries of observational painting that I feel truly liberated. I had initially thought to make a much bigger version of this painting after this small one, and this time include a small set of legs vanishing into the sea in the lower right hand corner, like Breughel’s original . . . but I don’t think I will. I think I could . . . but it would be a time-consuming undertaking, and unsupported by that dumb, innate conviction that fires the most essential work, I foresee a potential foundering.