Milosz & The Metropolitan
By David Schweidel
Riding a leisurely train down along the Hudson from Poughkeepsie to New York, I ate an avocado sandwich, read Raise High the Roof Beam, Carpenters, and then, with a map my friends in Poughkeepsie had lent me, plotted a sight-filled route from Grand Central Station to the Metropolitan Museum of Art. The river disappeared behind dark buildings, the train passed through a series of short tunnels, I studied the map. I didn’t want trouble out on those mean city streets so I set tough rules for myself: Don’t stop. Don’t gawk at the tops of buildings. Don’t look confused.
There were no lockers in Grand Central Station – I had expected lockers – but there was a baggage check window. Despite the pale, turbaned woman complaining in three languages about her lost trunk, I left my suitcase with the clerk.
I was coming from friends and had friends more or less expecting me, but for the moment I was alone with no fixed plan beyond the museum. Immediately, I phoned someone I hardly knew and arranged to meet for a beer at five o’clock. Thus established, I put on dark glasses, zipped up all the compartments of my shoulder bag, and pushed through the heavy door to 42nd Street.
It was like plugging myself into a stronger current. The juice shot through me at a voltage higher than I’d experienced before. Everything spun faster – faces, buildings, automobiles. I heard quick snatches of songs in my head:
Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free
I don’t hear a word they’re saying
Just a come-on from the whores on Seventh Avenue
I want to wake up in a city that never sleeps
Take a walk on the wild side
Take the “A” train
Trip the light fantastic on the sidewalks of New York
I didn’t stop, of course. Times Square wasn’t where I expected to find it, Radio City Music Hall proved elusive, but I was overwhelmed by the human landmarks, the proximity of so many thinly clothed bundles of longing and dread, greed and wisdom, thousands and thousands of individuals bent on what our Declaration of Independence so generously calls the pursuit of happiness. Yes, I admit it: I indulged my writerly pretensions. On these same streets, etc. – me and Henry Miller and young Joan Didion. How many writers had presumed they could turn this wealth of material into art? I saw the trajectory of a career, perhaps mine: the initial intense enthusiasm, the effort to capture everything, the constant onslaught of this, and this, and this. Just as I recognized how easy it must be to lose sight of the essential, I was interrupted by a moment of real life.
A pair of well-groomed women had broken two of my rules. They’d stopped at the corner of Lexington and 57th, and they looked confused. The one wearing a black silk scarf turned to the one in pearls. What she said hit me like a message from the universe. “I tell you, Ellen, we’re right there. We’re just missing it somehow.”
“Yes!” I wanted to scream. “Exactly!”
I paraded up the wide steps outside the museum still wonderstruck. Barely two hours remained till my beer appointment, a perfect amount of time. (All this happened years ago, when my attention span was longer in a museum than in a department store, but shorter than in a nightclub or at a basketball game. I was getting better though. Instead of looking at a painting as a piece of furniture – would I want this in my living room or not? – I’d started seeing paintings as stories in which each detail was the product of a choice. Why was the man in the booth holding a drooping rose? Why was the woman at the window half in shadow?) I started with the Rembrandts and Vermeers. They told stories about human endurance, human failure, the rare moments in a day or a life that transcend accumulated grief. “About suffering they were never wrong, the Old Masters.” Nor, I would say, about light. Light reveals the world beyond any single individual. It puts character in perspective.
Yet I have to concede that even while taking in the Met’s masterpieces, I was often distracted by ordinary human beings. There was a moment among the Impressionists, after I’d sped through rooms filled with hand-painted porcelain vases and Egyptian bas-reliefs, a moment when I noticed a freckled, red-haired teenager struggling to maintain hold of a squirming baby, and I thought, of course these paintings are marvelous. They’re inspired by such marvelous creatures. Look at that baby’s hands, the proportion of knuckle to fingernail. Any artist who conveys one iota of that miracle deserves acclaim.
I remember a painting of the sky at night that the artist had worked on, according to the placard, for the last forty years of his life. Above the floor of the forest, above the vast intricate web of tangled branches, the dark sky rose and rose, a darkness embellished and revised for decade after decade, with all the looming immensity of the ocean or the unconscious or death. A painting of Joan of Arc rendered every detail of her surroundings with such super-realistic precision that when I finally noticed she had levitated off the ground, I was forced to accept the miraculous as fact.
I felt like the honored guest at a celebration, opening gift after gift. The Impressionists celebrated perception, it seemed to me, the unique perception at the center of any life. I had the sense that they all shared the same idea, and that the variety with which they expressed their idea confirmed its truth. Teetering on the brink of ecstasy, I wandered from favorite to favorite, discovered the Barbizon School, feasted on the rich colors and exquisite textures of Matisse, until I arrived at the Modern Wing, a beautifully designed, beautifully lighted showcase for the art of our time.
Anyone else might have seen it differently, the series of huge canvases with their stark, random anti-forms, their blotches of thick paint. I thought of the woman in the black silk scarf. “I tell you, Ellen, we’re right there. We’re just missing it somehow.” It struck me with the breathless clarity of a revelation: the paintings I had just admired told stories about the experience of being “right there,” while these paintings depicted “missing it” or elaborated on the cryptic nature of “somehow.” Instead of transcendence, obstacles to transcendence. Instead of connections, unbridgeable gaps. I didn’t begrudge these artists their subjects – it’s worthwhile to call attention to the ugly, spirit-annihilating aspects of our lives – but I decided that the art I love best does more: it reminds us of what’s beautiful. The works of Rembrandt, Vermeer, Turner, Cezanne, Van Gogh, Matisse have not become obsolete. The nourishment, the sustenance of spirit, the celebration of light and character still endure. Maybe it was no accident that everyone had appeared so marvelous back in the Impressionist Room. Maybe the accomplishment of great art is to create a context in which the marvelousness of each individual can be appreciated.
A few months before my afternoon at the museum, I’d gone shopping for a suit at a San Francisco department store. Each time I came out of the fitting room with a different suit on, the same stalwart gentleman was already in front of the triple mirrors, uneasily inspecting himself. He would step down from the low platform and I would step up. I recognized him – Czeslaw Milosz, Nobel Prize winning poet – and even though we barely nodded, I wanted us to have more in common than this awkward moment of compromise with vanity and fashion. I wanted us – forgive my presumption – to belong on the same platform.
Which is why, at the dimly lit bar, after my museum euphoria had begun to wear off, I felt almost vindicated when my beer buddy brought up Milosz.
“Oh, I kind of know him,” I said. “We tried on suits together at Macy’s.”
“He has a poem,” my beer buddy said and quoted the last lines, the way writers sometimes do in dimly lit bars:
And when people cease to believe that there is good and evil
Only beauty will call to them and save them
So that they will know how to say: this is true and that is false.
All this, as I mentioned, happened long ago, but those words have come back to me more than once lately, reminding me of my afternoon among the masterpieces and the power, perhaps, of art, of words, of beauty to call to us when we most need saving.
David Schweidel is a writer, teacher, and communication coach who works with fifth grade poets in Berkeley, grad students at Stanford’s business school, and writers of all stripes. His novel Confidence of the Heart won the Milkweed National Fiction Prize and his nonfiction book What Men Call Treasure (co-written with Robert Boswell) was nominated for a Western Writers Award. He’s happy that his circle overlaps with Carl’s.