“You are a little soul carrying around a corpse.”–Epicetus
In Montreal, I ate at a restaurant in the old section of the city. The restaurant is known for its folksy French cuisine. So, instead of pan-seared foie gras, it serves chicken pot pie with a fruity table wine rather than an expensive bordeaux or variety from the Côtes du Rhône. On tap are three well-balanced local beers that suit the restaurant’s atmosphere, which is characterized by slate walls and rustic tables. The tables are chipped with faded finishes but remain sturdy–not the teetering plastic of similar places–adding a solid weight to the the cozy environment. The small windows offer a view of the harbor and the parks along it. The light that filters through the small panes give the room the feel of a Vermeer painting, both lush and muted as though something pleasant might be languishing among the folds of thick cloth and fading light.¹
After reviewing this painting, a friend said it “seems lonely,” suggesting that the painting harbors some absence. I resisted the temptation to make too much of her perception, the sense that my mind is somehow exposed in the wavering image. The technical issues required to paint create challenges that have less to do with expressing an idea than with clarifying shapes and managing colors. Yet the painting lacks the human figure, which if present might charge the space with the tragedy of sense: the notion that the painting is a tableau, expressing the moment the figure lived–an attempt to narrate the human experience. Without the figure, the scene seems not only invested with absence but also with expectation, as though the remnants of food and drink anticipate the return of a diner. Still, the table setting indicates that the diner is alone and this realization is wrenching. Eating alone recalls a desperation, a marginalization perhaps, that is fundamental to a form of sadness that permeates one’s identity.
We speculate about this individual–male, female, attractive, depressed? The objects anchor our perceptions. The fall leaves might suggest a depressive mood, or some more generalized waning: someone growing old alone or lamenting a love’s death. However, for many, the fall is an exhilarating time, quiet and cool, a time for slowing and enjoying company or moments of introspection, a feeling echoed in Yates’s “A Drinking Song”:
Wine comes in at the mouth
And love comes in at the eye.
This is all we know for truth
Before we grow old and die.
I lift the glass to my mouth;
I look at you, and I sigh.
In this poem, the sense is declarative–a whisper in a noisy crowd, a small touch on her cheek, no irony just an effort to express a feeling as it emerges and not as it has been interpreted. Yates was brave to be so clear and banal. When we interpret the statement, we are uncertain about the “sigh.” The parallel structure of the poem suggests that the speaker’s “sigh” in the last line corresponds to the “love” indicated in the second. Therefore, the sigh is the speaker’s attempt to express his love, but all he can manage is a inarticulate exhalation.
On the one hand, the speaker’s sigh indicates the ineffable nature of love: it is something felt not something that a person can exactly explain. Love of this kind, is not a proposition but a manifestation and is best understood in a look or a touch. Words in this case are far too tentative to give sense to a feeling that enervates your entire system. An ineffable love is transformative; it fundamentally changes you which is both wonderful and terrifying. You become anchored in an affection that is perhaps best articulated as safety: the idea that someone will accept you no matter what occasional misunderstandings emerge. They are not willing or able to hurt or misuse you; they can’t really imagine doing so. When this type of love is removed, one’s sense of self is also altered and a crisis of identity is unavoidable. Regaining this sense of meaning and purpose after the end of such a relationship is what is meant by “healing,” and healing is probably the most apt term. You are injured, and the injury runs deep.
An articulated love, on the other hand, is one in which the language of love is used, often expertly, to push an agenda, to fulfill an intellectualized set of needs that are inherently selfish. This person is less interested in forming a partnership then in controlling the relationship to fulfill a preconceived set of desires. One experiencing this type of love can easily transfer it from one person to another; therefore, this person is rarely hurt by its loss. He or she can remove it, and its associated agenda, and simply apply it to another. No hurt or struggle is involved beyond the need, which can certainly be difficult, to find the next host, and that host remains relevant only as long as it offers sanctioned responses to the lover’s needs. The host’s needs, on the other hand, are nodded at, they must be, but given little priority or value. They don’t shape the lover’s core actions; they often exist only as a hindrance to be dismantled, and if they can’t be dismantled, the lover leaves.
This painting, in at least one sense, is an homage to the fragility of affection and how it can turn on the smallest mistake or the slightest misunderstanding. Of course, these inaccuracies do add to the shape of the experience and, as when painting, one hopes they increase its beauty rather than undermine it, adding meaning and warmth. But perhaps too often the glitch infects the definition, subsuming it, creating confusion and pain. And when that happens, a bone-bound sadness is the result, the cure for which is hard to imagine or, if found, enact.
¹See Vermeer’s “Girl with a Pearl Earring.”