November 30, 2005

Shades of the prison house

Posted in Uncategorized at 8:31 am by falstaff

Tuesday night. Leafing through the New York Review of Books I discover that it has a Personals section. I’d never noticed this before. I do a quick scan. Artists, writers, PhDs – women interested in opera and ballet and movies and piano sonatas and watercolours and buddhism seeking educated, creative, perceptive, thoughtful, witty and ‘quasi-normal’ men to “explore the heights of the mind, the realms of the globe and the depths of love”. Wow! I feel like I’ve stumbled upon a secret elephant burying ground.

Then I read the thing more closely. “50ish”, “44-59”, “48-64”, “mid-50s to early 70s” “50+”. Right. A woolly mammoth burying ground then. The median age of people these ads are targeted at is 55. The youngest person advertising is 38 (but assures that you she looks 29!). It’s official – I’m an old person. It’s just a matter of time before my body figures this out.

I wonder if the NYRB will let me contract for a Personal ad to come out in Decembe 2035. I’m going to need to put one in then anyway, and just think of the killing I could make by locking in their current rate.

In other non-news, the NYRB also features a glorious poem called the Trumpeter Swan by Robin Robertson:

He takes a run at it: heaving himself
up off the lake, wing-beats echoing,
the wheeze of each pull
pulling him clear.

The sky is empty;
every stretch of water
flaunts its light.

You can learn how to fly, see all the edges
soften and blur, but you can’t hold on
to the height you find,
you can never be taught how to fall.


November 29, 2005

After she left

Posted in Uncategorized at 5:12 pm by falstaff

After she left he searched through the house for signs of her presence. Like a spy. Or an errant husband. Hoping that she had forgotten something, hoping that she had left something behind. There was nothing. No damp tissues crumpled in the wastebasket, no smudge of lipstick on the coffee cups, no tiny slip of paper fallen accidentally behind the bed. Not even the trace of her handwriting on the notepad by the phone. There was no way for him to prove that she had ever been there, not even to himself. Was it possible that he had simply imagined her? He picked a few loose hairs off the pillow, stared at them for a minute, stretching them out between his fingers to confirm that they were too long to be his. Then he threw them away.

After a while he got up off the bed, switched on the coffee machine, put a record on the stereo. Bob Dylan singing Is your love in vain? while the black certainty of being alone again trickled slowly into his coffeepot. He began to tidy up, folding away the sofa-bed, putting away the extra quilt. The sheets on the bed still held the shape of her body. He folded them up very carefully, as if he hoped to preserve the perfect crease of the moment forever.

Later, sipping his coffee, he opened the notebook, sat down to write. Absence is the space between heartbeats, he wrote, an emptiness too small to be alive in. The words stared back from the page, refusing to offer him any consolation. He imagined her departure as a perfect arc, a projectile thrown beautifully into the world with no one on the other end to catch it. He logged on to the airline’s website, tracked the status of her flight on the screen to make sure it had taken off on time.

It seemed to him then that the air was the right element for her; that as long as she was up in the sky and he was here on earth they would both be safe, and the thread between them would unravel but remain unbroken. It was only when she landed and left the airport that he would lose her, that she would finally have left him behind.

He tried not to think about that. Everywhere he looked the room bore the signs of the hasty cleaning he had done before she arrived. Clothes peeped out of the drawers they had been hurriedly shoved into, a flock of loose papers lay hurriedly thrust under the bed. What had it all been for? he wondered. In the silence of the morning her absence felt more real than her presence had been, as though he missed her more than he had enjoyed being with her.

After a while the sun shining in through the window reminded him that it was time to get to work. He shaved carefully, imagining his face as she would have seen it, lingering in the shower so that the scald of the water would take the yearning out of his bones. When he came out of the shower he found the mirror had fogged over. He started to wipe it clean, then, on an impulse, with his hand just inches away from the frosted surface of the glass, he let it be. He dressed quickly, absently, his thoughts still elsewhere. He picked up his keys, put on his coat, picked out the library books that were due. Then he was gone.

Behind him the mirror cleared slowly, drops of precipitation running down its surface like tears, the slow fog of its grief fading, until it stood cold and empty in the perfect absence of the winter afternoon.

November 28, 2005

The Evolution of Line

Posted in Uncategorized at 2:08 pm by falstaff

Van Gogh at the Met

Seeing Van Gogh without colour is like looking at a bonfire that has been laid out but not lighted. Sure, you can admire the precision with which the lines criss-cross, the skilled symmetry of the heaped wood, but you can’t help missing the flame itself, the raw power of the fire dancing in vivid tongues from within the dry branches.

But let’s begin at the beginning. The first thing that strikes you about the exhibition of Van Gogh drawings at the Met is just how crowded it is. As great herds of people crowd into the six rooms that make up the exhibition to gawk and admire, there’s an atmosphere of polite fishmarket, a sort of half-concealed greed that takes over as you jockey for a better view. Being able to see a drawing by yourself is virtually impossible, you’re lucky (and probably fairly tall) if you manage to get a full view of the drawing and don’t have to piece it together bit by bit from glances caught between the backs of other people. Every step forward requires the kind of concentration you normally associate only with Rubik’s cubes – a studied determination to somehow maneouver your way into the one empty space left in front of the painting. M and I managed to get to the museum just as it was opening, so it wasn’t so bad – by the time we left, the wait time just to get into the exhibition was 40 minutes.

All of this means, of course, that quiet contemplation of the drawings is not an option. You could stand and stare at a painting for hours, I suppose, but only if you had kidneys of tungsten and were consequently immune to elbow jabs in the back.

So much for gentle ambience. The drawings themselves are, at least in the initial years, exquisite without being spectacular. Which is to say they’re beautiful drawings but it’s hard to see Van Gogh in them. Much of the initial work consists of portraits done in severe graphite and ink tones, which seem more like Degas’, though without quite the same intensity. There are also some glorious landscapes, including one called the Kingfisher (a tiny heart of a bird buried away in a grainy perspective of indifference)

and a luminous Drenthe landscape (emptiness radiating as light). These are wonderful drawings, but they are the drawings of a master who is yet to find himself, a master still tied to the old geometry of planes. Here, as in the drawings that immediately follow, Van Gogh is still using lines that are cleanly, almost insistently straight. If there is any emotion in these drawings at all, it is not so much passion as sparseness, a bleakness of perspective accentuated by the lack of colour.

Here and there, Van Gogh introduces colour (and indeed one of the greatest joys of the exhibit is the way it places multiple versions of the same drawing, some in colour, others not, side by side – see examples below) and the effect is vivid and glorious, though even here the colours do not so much swirl about as arrange themselves in neat, shining legions and oppose each other.

It’s only once Van Gogh reaches Arles that you see the drawings change, grow. The strokes seem to become bolder, more confident, but more importantly, it feels as though Van Gogh is finally breaking away from the strict linearity of his early drawings. There is more room for confusion now, the lines mill about, responding more the passion of the artist’s hand than to the staider laws of perspective and geometry. This is fascinating evolution to watch, barely visible in Fishing Boats at Sea, beginning to emerge in Wheat Field with Sheaves, achieving some prominence in the Sower and in the swirling Olive Trees at Montmajour,

taking centre stage in Garden with Sunflowers and the leaping fire of Cypresses,

and acheiving its apeothesis in Wild Vegetation and Old Vineyard with Peasant Woman. The difference between these last works and the drawings that the exhibition begins with is a stark one, and bears witness to the phenomenal growth that Van Gogh underwent as an artist in a little under ten years.

All in all, the exhibition at the Met is not as soul-searing an experience as the idea of a Van Gogh exhibition would seem to promise. It is, however, an insightful and engaging exploration of the artistic evolution of one of the greatest painters of all time. The drawings exhibited here and beautiful and alive – and if they seem pale and a little dull, it is only because one cannot help comparing them to Van Gogh’s richer, more explicitly passionate paintings. It’s a comparison that few works of art could stand up to.

For a look at the complete catalogue of paintings on show at the exhibit, see here.

November 27, 2005

Somebody stole my break…

Posted in Uncategorized at 8:38 am by falstaff

…or the Top 5 break-up songs of all time.

(This is why you shouldn’t watch High Fidelity at 1 in the morning on a Saturday night)

1. Bob Dylan, ‘She’s your lover now’; from The Bootleg Series Volumes 1-3

Pain sure brings out the best in people, doesn’t it?
Why didn’t you just leave me if you didn’t want to stay?
Why’d you have to treat me so bad?
Did it have to be that way?
Now you stand here expectin’ me to remember somethin’ you forgot to say

2. Joan Baez, ‘It’s all over now, Baby Blue’; from Farewell Angelina; originally by Bob Dylan.

The highway is for gamblers, better use your sense.
Take what you have gathered from coincidence.
The empty-handed painter from your streets
Is drawing crazy patterns on your sheets.
This sky, too, is folding under you
And it’s all over now, Baby Blue.

3. Stephen Sondheim, ‘Send in the Clowns’; from Little Night Music

Don’t you love farce?
My fault, I fear.
I thought that you’d want what I want –
Sorry, my dear.
But where are the clowns?
There ought to be clowns.
Quick, send in the clowns.

4. Joni Mitchell, ‘Still like to see you sometimes’; from For the Roses

I’ll come meet your plane
No need to surrender
I just want to see you again
We’re in for more rain
I could sure use some sunshine on my apple trees
It seems such a shame
We start out so kind and end so heartlessly

5 Ella Fitzgerald singing ‘Just one of those things’; written by Cole Porter

As Dorothy Parker once said to her boy friend,
“Fare thee well,”
As Columbus announced
When he knew he was bounced,
“It was swell, Isabelle, swell,”

As Abélard said to Héloïse,
“Don’t forget to drop a line to me, please,”
As Juliet cried in her Romeo’s ear,
“Romeo, why not face the fact, my dear?”

November 26, 2005


Posted in Uncategorized at 9:06 am by falstaff

Oh, we're sunk enough here, God knows!
But not quite so sunk that moments,
Sure tho' seldom, are denied us,
When the spirit's true endowments
Stand out plainly from its false ones,
And apprise it if pursuing
Or the right way or the wrong way,
To its triumph or undoing.

There are flashes struck from midnights,
There are fire-flames noondays kindle,
Whereby piled-up honours perish,
Whereby swollen ambitions dwindle,
While just this or that poor impulse,
Which for once had play unstifled,
Seems the sole work of a life-time
That away the rest have trifled.

– Robert Browning, ‘Cristina’

In general, the Victorian age was not, I think, a good time for English poetry. The Rossettis and Arnold wrote a handful of good poems, but also wrote volumes of sentimental twaddle. Swinburne was all surface – his poems sounding glorious and magical, a wonder to read aloud, but not really standing up to closer scrutiny. Tennyson, on his good days, was a spectacular poet, but try going beyond the Selected Works and all you’ll get is the semi-coherent rambling.

Browning alone stands out from among this crowd – not only because his poetry is far more consistent (relatively speaking – there’s a lot of bad Browning as well – but it represents a much smaller proportion of his work than with the others) but also because Browning was the only one of these poets who was consciously pushing the envelope of poetry forward. What you chiefly hear in all the other Victorians is a nostalgia for the old masters, it is only in Browning that you find a premonition of the century of poetry to follow. As a dramatist, as a poet of conversations, Browning has few equals – he finds and exploits the hidden rhythm of human speech, its protean patterns, to perfection. And it is in Browning that we hear, after almost a decade of romanticism and sentiment, the aching sense of bitter-sweet irony that will become a hallmark of modern poetry. Browning’s poems are complex constructions of idea and emotion, of sound and wit, and it is in their sophisticated casualness that we first find the voice that, in the years to come, we will hear faintly repeated in Auden and early Eliot, in Hughes and Day-Lewis and (perhaps) even in Larkin. As Browning himself put it : “Your ghost will walk, you lover of trees / (If our loves remain)”

November 25, 2005

The Pianist

Posted in Uncategorized at 8:21 am by falstaff

When his turn finally came, the ring-master slashed his wrists open with the practised ease of a professional butcher and a great giant of a slave, his taut muscles gleaming with oil, led him out. As he stepped into the dust of the arena a great cry went up from the crowd, like a flock of angry white birds rising suddenly up into the sky. It was a cry of hunger, a cry that rose from the very depths of the ravening maw of the stadium, a cry that carried within it the tang of blood tasted and not forgotten. Now that the initial numbness of the knifestroke had faded, the pain was returning to his slashed wrists and the blood dripped from his fingers in a constant stream, leaving a thin ribbon of red across the white sand of the ring. It was a hot day and the piano was a brilliant, glaring white, standing there in the centre of the arena, so far away from him that he thought he’d never reach it.

But he did reach it, of course. As he sat down in front of it, there was a momentary hush from the crowd, an instant of silence that matched exactly the calm in his heart as he contemplated, for the last time, that familiar arrangement of black and white keys. That one ephemeral second before the first chord is struck when the whole world seems perfectly in balance – like the sudden hushing of the wind before a storm.

It didn’t last, of course. As the first notes of Tristesse trembled their way out of his piano (for what else could he play, with his hands bleeding, but Chopin), the crowd began to shout again, so that before long Chopin’s sad, lovely music had been almost completely drowned out, remaining audible only to him and becoming, in the tenacity with which he clung to it, a private prayer, an intimate and deeply personal grief. As the pain in his wrists harmonised with the glorious ache of the music, every note became a small victory, a triumph of the soul, the pure expression of a sorrow untouched by the grasping fingers of the mob. The blue of the sky above seemed to close in on him, he felt the air thinning away from around him, the world thawing away. Never mind the crowd. He was going to die in this ring anyway. He shut his eyes and played.

As he brought the etude to a close, letting the last notes tremble and then fall like leaves, he felt the roaring of the crowd go louder. At first he thought it was simply the effect of the music ending, an illusion of walls closing in created by the snapping of that vital link, but then he opened his eyes and realised what the crowd was cheering about. The tigers had been brought out! He could see them, far away on opposite ends of the arena, straining against their chains. A quick snap of a lever and they would be released and come bounding towards him – he could already imagine the crunch of their great teeth biting into his neck.

For a minute he considered giving in to them, letting them have their way. After all, he was going to die anyway – this last grandstand with the piano was just a form of sentimental foolishness. Might as well get it over with. Besides, the loss of blood was starting to take its toll on him. His wrists felt numb and heavy, his fingers were virtually bloodless, so that if he continued to play it was through sheer will alone. Will and the habit of decades, that kept his fingers true to their accustomed courses. His arms felt heavy as lead, a slow spiral of dizziness was climbing up to his brain.

Then, even as the crowd stood up to call for his death, a new courage filled his heart, a new determination tighted the line of his jaw. No, he would not go down easily. He would fight. He thought of Beethoven, loveless, old, his hearing gone, continuing to wrestle with the ferocious demons of his music until he had them pinned and helpless on the ground. No, he would not give up.

The momentum of this thought flared through his body, the way a dying bonfire, discovering a log left unburnt in its ashen heart, flames into sudden, momentary glory. His fingers moved of their own accord, smashing down onto the keyboard. Beethoven. Piano Sonata No 14. Third movement. The endless vertigo of defiance. As the notes exploded from his piano like gunshots, the crowd was shocked into silence, and even the tigers took a step or two back, uncertain of how to face this new and unfamiliar beast that had been let loose in the stadium. The pianist didn’t care. The music beat inside him like a frantic heart, the notes poured out of him like blood. The entire keyboard reeked with his gore now, the delicate ivory of the keys had been stained a clotted red, and a thin rivulet of blood had crept down the leg of the piano like crimson ivy, and was starting to snake its way across the floor of the arena. And still he played. Now that the crowd had been subdued into perfect silence, the fury of his playing filled the stadium, the notes echoing and resounding among walls of ancient stone, like a vengeance that knows no compromise. As the pianist played, a terrible premonition gripped the listeners. As though a veil had been pulled back and they could see the withering away of empires, the inevitable erosion, not only of their own bodies, but of all the things they held sacred – their palaces and temples, their monuments and stadia – all crumbling away into dust as the unstoppable force of that music dashed against them. Gripped by panic, feeling his throne crumble away from under him, the Emperor gave the signal for the tigers to be released, for the pianist to be silenced. But the tigers would not attack the pianist. They circled him warily, their whiskers bristling with the anger that radiated out from the piano in sharp, radiant lines.

It was only when the pianist stopped and fell limply of his stool that they regained their courage, approached the body lying in the dust with angry growls. But by then it was too late. The pianist was dead. And the seeds of passion that would ultimately bring down the empire had been sown deep in the stone of the listening walls.

November 24, 2005

Hoover my God to thee

Posted in Uncategorized at 5:15 pm by falstaff

Have you ever noticed how much like confession vacuuming is? You sit around, letting the tiny sins of dust collect on the carpet of your soul, and then one day you haul out the heavy equipment and get rid of them all in one roaring go. Fifteen minutes and your soul is as good as new. Of course, if you happen to do something really bad – like break a glass or spill coffee grounds all over the place, then you need to fix it right away, but for any sins less mortal you can get by with the occassional vacuuming. If you’re the pious type you’ll vacuum every week whether it looks like you need to or not – it’ll be a kind of ritual. If you’re like me then you’ll wait until there’s a real risk of someone coming along and declaring your room a health hazard, and then get the old Hoover out.

Of course, the thing with this is that you never know when people (like Death, for instance) may come to visit. If you’re lucky, they’ll show up right after you’ve finished vacuuming, so you’ll be able to bask in the heaven of their appreciation, and pretend that you’re one awesomely neat person. More than likely though, they’ll show up unexpectedly just when you’ve been putting off cleaning up for a while, and then you’ll stand around all embarassed, wishing you’d got to the task sooner.

Every time you finish vacuuming and look with pride at your scrupulously clean carpet, you think – this time I’m going to keep it this way. You promise yourself that you’ll leap after every stray crumb, every piece of thread. You figure if you could just catch these things when they fall you wouldn’t need to do all this cleaning afterwards. It never happens though – a couple of days later you’ll be tired, you’ll slack off, before you know it your room will be a mess and it’ll be time to take out the vacuum again. The best thing you can do, in fact, is not even try, just go ahead and sin all you like and just make sure you clean up regularly.

Not, of course, that there aren’t people whose floors aren’t always spotlessly clean. These are the kind of irritating, saintly people who’ll put in white carpets and then fuss over a 1 mm piece of lint that they discover lying in one corner. I have a lot of respect for these people, but on a personal basis I find them insufferable. That’s why I don’t even consider going to their house, even when they invite you.

And God? God is the one absolutely clean carpet lying in an abandoned room that no one is allowed to walk on. The one you need to take your shoes off even to come near. The one that nobody can really live with.

November 23, 2005

Oh, and all the fish

Posted in Uncategorized at 8:09 am by falstaff

Seeing as it’s Thanksgiving tomorrow (and given my passion for making lists in general) I figured I’d be all traditional and do the soppy ‘things I’m thankful for’ post. So here’s my list (are supposed to check it twice even if it’s not Christmas?) of the 20 things I’m most grateful for in my life (in no particular order):

1. Doppios

2. High speed Internet

3. My parents [1]

4. Happy Hours (read: $1 pints and 50% off on all shots)

5. Msrs. Neruda, Auden, Plath, Eliot, Walcott and Faiz

6. Mozart

7. The Far Side

8. The New Yorker

9. Janus Films (aka the Criterion Collection)

10. My iPod

11. The Philadelphia Orchestra

12. A 30% decline in my cholesterol levels over the last year (despite # 4 and # 15)

13. Being able to come home to an empty house

14. Central Heating

15. Dark Chocolate

16. Free shipping on Amazon

17. Whitman

18. “All things counter, original, spare, strange; / Whatever is fickle, freckled (who knows how?) / With swift, slow; sweet, sour; adazzle, dim”

19. Free talktime after 9 pm on weekdays (and all day on weekends)

20 Blogspot.


[1] My mom wrote in in response to yesterday’s post saying how she agreed with me and was glad to know that sex wasn’t beneath my dignity, but complaining about how my post would give people the impression that my parents are uncool! If that doesn’t drive home the point by itself, let me say for the record that I have the coolest parents. Ever. So there.

November 22, 2005

What’s marriage got to do with it?

Posted in Uncategorized at 7:58 am by falstaff

I’m against pre-marital sex.

Not that I have anything against sex per se [1]. It’s the pre-marital bit that I have trouble with. It’s such a ridiculous and reductive notion – this idea that it’s okay to have sex if and only if there’s a marriage somewhere in the offing. It’s a classic bait and switch deal – first celebrating sex out of proportion, then adding a sting to its tail. You know how HP sells you its printers at throwaway prices and then makes money on the ink? It’s the same kind of thing.

Okay, look, let’s put aside for a minute the whole debate about whether marriage is desirable at all. Let’s ignore the problem of how this pre-marital business is to be contracted for, or what may constitute a breach of that agreement (is it okay to have sex with someone who you’re going to marry as long as they die before you marry them?). Let’s not even think about going into what exactly constitutes a sex act and why, but for a neolithic preoccupation with virginity, penetration matters.

The thing I have trouble with is why the two events – sex and marriage – should be conditional on each other in any way. That’s not sexual liberation, it’s a more insidious servitude. At least with the old chastity argument you had the implicit sense that sex wasn’t something worth getting hot and bothered about. The pre-marital sex argument merely emphasises the notion of sex as something monstrous and sinful, a vicious dog that must be kept firmly on a chain, except now it’s important enough to get married over [2]. People who don’t have the courage to accept sex for its own sake may as well not have it; and those of us who see it as little more than a source of harmless pleasure don’t need to be scaffolded to some defunct institution in order to enjoy it.

Understand that I’m not making a case for that most terrible of catch phrases – casual sex. I’d be the first to agree that choosing a sexual partner is an act of meditation and discernment, if only because sex without trust or intimacy strikes me as being a dubious pleasure. I’m simply saying that the choice of sexual partner and the choice of spouse are fundamentally different decisions and require both distinct criteria and different cut-offs on the criteria that are common. Take financial prudence, for example – do I really need someone I’m having sex with to have a good credit history? Or be someone I’m willing to share a joint checking account with? Yet surely these are things I would look for in a spouse. Why then should the choice of one be related to the other? It’s like saying you need to have a degree in accounting before you can drink at a bar.

The problem, I think, is primarily semantic. The trouble is that in the dichotomous black-and-white world of the moral police, there are only two categories – sex within the confines of marriage, and promiscuity. This is like saying that anyone who doesn’t own a Merc is a pedestrian. The fact is that it is possible to have sexual relationships that are not linked to marriage but that are otherwise far from casual. Let’s call such relationships ‘passionate sex’ (okay, okay, so that’s a loaded term, but it’s a hell of a lot better than calling it formal sex – as opposed to casual; besides, it’s about time someone did a little marketing for the other side). Passionate sex is sex with emotional involvement but without the tyranny of social definitions. It may or may not be exclusive (yes, MR, I knew you were going to bring that up) in the short run, but it rejects both a commitment to longer term exclusivity and the ignominy of random selection. Understand that I’m not saying this is a new idea that someone should try – I think, correction, I know, that Passionate Sex is a reality of the world we live in. It’s just that we don’t have the right word for it.

Bottomline: The point about the whole pre-marital sex discussion is that the real issue is not sex, it’s marriage. If the advocates of pre-marital sex seem locked in an irreconcilable battle with those who aver a stricter ‘moral’ code, it’s only because they’re the only two groups still backward enough to think sex is an issue. It’s like watching two schoolboys fight during detention – the rest of us have already left the building.


[1] Mom, Dad, if you’re reading this, just keep repeating to yourself that stuff about this blog being mostly fiction.

[2] I seriously worry that there are people out there whose entire will to get married is born out of sexual frustration. It would explain so much.

November 21, 2005

A spilt life

Posted in Uncategorized at 8:21 am by falstaff

When the money for the canvasses ran out, he started to paint on the curtains, and when he was done with those, on the windows themselves, hoping to catch the sunlight that way. “I must have the only house in the Universe where you’ve got to look into the windows to see the view instead of out of them”, he told me. “You know that nude I painted on the bathroom window? Man, you should see the number of peeping toms I get”.

When the windows gave out as well, he started on the wall-paper, tearing great swathes of it off the wall and painting on the back, the glue making his colours stickier. He was painting in strips now, painting the kind of torn beauty that the world is really made up of, hoping he’d be able to put it all together one day, stick it back up with the wallpaper reversed so that the walls would bleed with his colours. (“You know how people are always turning their pockets inside out to look for something they think they have on them but can’t seem to lay their hands on. Well, that’s what I’ve done with my house.”)

When the money spring (as he put it) finally ran dry, he sold off all his music, keeping only that one Charlie Parker record he’d never got around to painting. (“You got to hear the blue on this one, you just got to. There hasn’t been a blue like this in the world since Tintoretto. Honest”). Even so, it was a choice between buying food and buying paint. He went and bought ten huge cans of paint, saying, “There’s more than enough food in the world, but there sure isn’t enough colour. Don’t you worry about it, I’ll manage.”

How he managed was this: every morning he would wake up at three in the morning (“Not wake up – I don’t have the strength for that anymore – more like fall awake”) and go wandering about the city, stealing a bottle of milk from some passing doorway to slake his hunger. He was careful not to steal from the same house twice, though, not because he was afraid of getting caught but because he really didn’t want to do anyone harm and figured losing one bottle of milk in their lives wasn’t going to hurt anyone. As the months passed, this meant he had to go further and further to get the nourishment he needed, returning home exhausted from having walked too far. The evenings were better though. There was a bakery around the corner who agreed to let him have a loaf of left-over bread every night as long as he’d come in once a week and draw a new background for the ‘specials of the day’ board. So he did. With nothing but three pieces of coloured chalk to work with, he turned out glorious, golden paintings of melting butter and soft, rising bread and coffee blacker than a moonless night. People told him he was wasting his talent, to which he replied, perfectly serious, “No, actually, it’s wasting me.”

And wasted he certainly was. As the days passed, the pounds fell off him like leaves from autumn trees. His face had the hollow look of eroded stone, his eyes were dark and bloody wells. And still the paintings flowed out of him. By this point, he’d covered practically every surface in the house, even painting on the pages of the Telephone Directory, even painting on toilet paper (“Now I’ve really got paint running out of my ass!”) He tried painting on bread once, but it soaked up too much of the colour and the image got soggy and crumbled away, so he didn’t try that again. Then one day he stared at himself in the mirror, seeing his withered body, the skin stretched tight across his gaunt frame, and it made him think of a canvas so he started painting on himself (“Now that’s what I call a self-portrait”), using a mirror he borrowed from a neighbour (his own was covered with a portrait of Narcissus) to paint his back when the front was all used up. “I used to tell people that when they saw my paintings they saw my true, my naked self. Now that’s literally true!”

And still the images wouldn’t stop coming. He painted on the undersides of dustbin lids, he went to fairs and painted on the faces of children. His system of stealing milk bottles no longer worked because he would absent-mindedly end up painting on the doors he stole from, so that his trembling images told them at once who had taken their milk. He didn’t care. He wasn’t really interested in the milk anymore, he only wanted the bottles so he could paint on the insides of them and then drop them from a height to see how colour shatters, how beauty is destroyed. When the few friends he still had came to check on him, they would find him lying stark naked in the centre of the room, drunk on colour. “Beauty, real beauty is the stuff I imbibe”, he told them, “all this other junk is just the vomit that comes out afterwards”. Then he started to attack them with paintbrushes, hoping to paint on them as well, and they stopped coming altogether.

Slowly the conviction that the world was just something he’d painted grew on him. Stuck all day in his tiny garret of a room, its walls and floor and surfaces all painted over more times than he could remember, he felt as though he himself were a figure in his own paintings, without the strength to get out. For the first time in his life he experienced the pride of the imagined in its own creation, felt how desperately the image needed to be perfect because the visible is all it had, all it could ever be. What you see is what you get.

When the paint finally ran out he cried for three straight days, using his tears to dilute the blotches of paint in the room to go on painting with. By the end of it though his eyes were giving way and he knew he couldn’t go on. It occured to him then, that there was one surface that he still hadn’t painted on, one last canvas left untouched. The inside of his skin. Slowly, deliberately, he imagined the painting he would make on that canvas. For two nights and a day he sat rapt in meditation, picturing it to himself, sketching it out with the paintbrush of the mind, with the colours of memory. Then, when he was sure he had it, when that last, perfect painting was done and he could feel the colour humming in his veins, he climbed up to the top of the roof and threw himself open on the street, sharing himself and his work with the city the way he’d always wanted to, the way he’d never dared. As the paint spilled out of his broken body, it seemed as though the flow of it would never stop, as though the great spreading pool of his colours would engulf the city, dye it with his images. In that moment he saw, for the first and only time, his vision realised.

Two months later, his paintings had all been sold off to private collectors, to hang safely in their sterile homes. The landlord had auctioned off the rest of his personal effects and used the money to hire a professional housekeeping service that scrubbed the floors clean and put up new wallpaper. All that was left of the fever of his life was a slight stain of red, hardly noticeable, on a anonymous sidewalk in a little known corner of the city.

“They tell me it’s no use crying over spilt paint”, he used to say. “But what else is there to cry about?”.

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