The Ephemerist has a Profound Experience of Art

There is this novel I really like
about a guy who goes on vacation
in Spain; or I guess he doesn’t go on vacation,
he goes there on a travel grant of some kind
to write poems maybe or to translate poems
about the effects of the Spanish Civil War;
I’m not sure, but whatever it is
the man was supposed to do
he doesn’t end up doing it at all
and instead
each morning he visits a certain museum
(he goes to the Prado I think)
where he sits for hours in front
of a certain painting without
necessarily contemplating
or even caring about the painting per se,
which in every sense means that the man
might as well be on vacation—
(and the painting he sits in front of might have
been Mary on the Cross or else the painting was
some other famous Christian
painting that I never
have the proper reference for myself and so
I don’t usually remember the names of);
but in any case, one morning when the man arrives
at the museum, another man is standing
in front of this
painting that the protagonist
likes to stand in front of, and the man is
not just standing there, he is blocking the view,
disrupting the routine of the protagonist and so on,
so that

eventually the protagonist becomes so annoyed
and intrigued with this other man,
this stranger who is standing
in front of him and who is
actually crying in front of the painting—
the first man notices—and not just
crying but convulsively crying;
in my mind the man is
slouched over, flaccid and weepy,
for no discernible reason unless it’s for the beauty or
grandeur of the work of art, whatever work
of art it might be;
and so the protagonist who would normally
walk from the museum to the park
and maybe smoke a spliff or take
a nap, that’s the general
account the man gives of his daily regimen,
(parque retiro, that’s where I imagine he goes anyway),
and so instead of all this, the man becomes so
excited by the presence of the other second man
that he ends up following
him from one work of art to another
throughout the museum, which is now
by all accounts becoming
more than a museum and by some standards
less of one, and finally the first man tries to speculate
whether the second man is crying in earnest or ironically,
if the man is, say, crying as some piece of performance art
or else as a spell of insanity
or else out of some ‘profound’ and mystical
experience of art that this other man, the protagonist,
has perhaps never quite known before himself.
And so I really like this kind of thing,
the whole novel is a little like this; it goes on and on
with these kinds of characters until
finally one man follows the other man outside,
up from the stodginess of this museum
into the sunlight. Meanwhile, you never actually
find out what happens to the man who was crying
in the museum or why he showed up like this one day,
or if the women later on in the novel that
the protagonist dates and has casual sex with are
actual women or if the protagonist actually
cares for them or not; that is, we never find out whether
the women are any different from the painting
in the museum; we never learn any particular thing
about them in fact, except that they are important and sexy
(in any case, I assume they are sexy, and not only
because they are characters in a novel
or because they are from Madrid);
what I like
is that none of this is any kind of farce or some subtle,
elaborate work of social satire or anything like that;
it’s the coldness of the protagonist that
interests me I guess
and which is wrapped up with the protagonist’s
pathological need to escape
or to flee from himself
without necessarily knowing why.
Which reminds me of the moment in the underworld
when Aeneas says goodbye to his old lover
Dido, who killed herself because she thought he left her;
and so Aeneas’ last words, which she cannot hear,
because she’s in the underworld, are something like
‘Please Dido, tell me whether I am the type of person people flee from’?
or else he asks her ‘am I the type of person who will always flee’?
I don’t know exactly what is said because I don’t read Latin
and I don’t always remember what I read once I’ve put the book down—
I truly cannot remember
the last time I had a profound experience of art myself—
at best, I tend to walk away from it trembling and scared that I’ve focused on
all the wrong details like my teachers used to tell me,
the significance or the details of the
painting in the novel, for instance—
and so I’ll usually just walk away
from the book in a state of familiar
astonishment or moderate satiety,
which is always false, of course
like reading a dinner menu and feeling full
without having actually eaten,
or like crossing the ‘doleful river Acheron’
and forgetting everything that came before it,
which is the only time, according to Virgil,
the dead are able to see clearly;
and so I guess the important thing to remember
is that heroes are often
the types of people who will create opportunities
for departure; spaces for women and for works of art
to abandon them; and I guess what
I’m trying to say is that I want to earn the right
to be morose; that I want to be allowed to be
weepy and flaccid in public places, and that
I want that to be – if not heroic – at least okay.

*After Delia Elena San Marco by Jorge Luis Borges (1964); The Aenied by Virgil (Book VI, lines 440-476); and the opening monologue of ‘Other People with Brad Listi’ (Episode 15)

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