The Artist

I

Henceforth nothing was ordinary – the smallest action was either triumph or failure, gross misstep or major victory. At dinner his family would sit together speaking in half-sentences; various emotions swelled to affect the entire party but seemed immediately to fall away in cascade; someone would suddenly feel critical, and the others, sensing this, would change their tone to compensate. Always, at those moments, the boy in question would croak, or cough, seem to be moved – and the table would once more rest poised for catharsis (preparing to curse the boy’s detractors, or pray naively for his health, or pout in desperation) – but before any outpouring could occur, someone would straighten a tie, or gulp back the wine, and all settle once more into apathy.

The boy walked; of all activities only this was endurable to him; he walked as rigidly as possible, in order to endure himself, and when others spied him during these hours (he walked after dark) inexplicably their gaze was drawn to the sidewalk on the opposite side of his form, which could surely not be the actual body of itself, but which must have been the shade or umbra of a more natural man that strode and stumbled and trotted along with all the variance and breath befitting a natural being. Yet these onlookers, upon finding no such original, actual life, would turn back to watch the self-effacing figure a second time, feeling that they could now identify a tic or limp, some deficit in his gait – though this change was in fact only in themselves.

What the boy aspired to be, when asked, was “indubitable” – he was no more definite about it. He felt he existed behind something held ajar, which might soon shut, and was ready to live like a ghost if it meant he might preempt his exclusion from whatever next world seemed to lie behind this opening. Thus – and this was the circumstance that each family dinner was subject to – the boy threatened almost daily to die by his own hand, if only to lay claim to a self-hatred that surpassed anything that society might feel towards him.

This is what engulfed him on these evening walks – and what was interrupted one evening by a hysterical younger child tugging at his dress-shirt from behind, wide-eyed, startled out of her own nightwatch: “the statue is looking… it won’t stop looking at me!” She pointed to some marble army general: “Please, could you speak with him – could you please convince him I am kind, and he needn’t worry, that I am only out for some air and wouldn’t ever wish to usurp him…” The boy’s callousness was not broken by her plea, and he kept walking. The girl behind him, pressing herself with increasing force against the banister opposite the monument, still cringing and contorting from some insane fear, he ignored. For he could not help but feel that she, too, was some indictment, or ploy… Later that week he was again confronted by the world’s need of him: a simple occasion – another boy younger than himself, who at a distance waved to him in recognition before realizing that the subject was not the acquaintance he sought. …The simple confusion was cheering to the older child, showed him the possibility that he might indeed be something else, might be mistaken for someone’s ally, and thereby acquitted (of what crime?) – that he might be renewed by accident, saved by another’s confusion…

So, what was this crime of his, that nevertheless caused his family to feel sympathy for him, as though he himself were the one wronged? He carried an essential inexpressiveness –all through childhood ‘fellow feeling’ and ‘human decency’ felt to him outright agreement, consensus with whatever central argument his intellect entertained, and which made any expression of his own seem like an excess bordering on hysteria. For him to be hurt was to be rejected in concert, all at once, to hear all bodies shaking their fists in the air, to see faces embossed with disgust like placards hovering in protest against his mere existence. He would enter parks and hear his own speculations mimicked, piecemeal, in other’s conversations – across the entire sunny sidewalk, he could hear his own conviction spelled out for him like a lesson scrawled on some chalkboard. The green of the chalkboards behind university lecterns matched perfectly with that of those grassy knolls over which strangers picnicked in the town’s parks, thinking his thoughts along with him. In sum: the whole world spoke, saw, shuddered on his behalf – whether in sympathy or in condemnation.

During those times in his life when others ‘defended’ him, he became selfless, angelic, feeling every other existence to be parts of his own relic tessellated like massive ashes across the landscape, like material eulogies for his still incomplete life. …When his mood shifted, and he fell towards despicability, he scowled at those avatars of himself, now divested of their solidity, made ghosts of his ghost, and felt each to be one of a whole constellation of stigmata stuck into his own limbs, which stood like semaphore flags signaling to him the ultimate threat – expulsion out of life and installment at the very base of hell.

Yet, like wallpaper peeling to reveal bare wood, there was something blander, more neutral behind this symphonic exterior world – it was as though to each being he had added one extra identity, felt himself to be always involved in a triangle of selves; there was himself, and the stranger exterior to him, and then an additional outshoot of himself that formalized his every thought in order to disperse it, stamped it with approval or flagged it for censorship, to all involved. At last he began to take up painting, to discharge these excesses of his identity…

II

At first they thought he was simply blunt, too blunt to lure any conversation past the quaint but unnerving disarray into which his workshop had fallen since he had moved in – so blunt that visitors actually seemed to lose their balance when he said its mess was precisely so that none but he, the artist, would feel welcome there, at which point he would smile past them, smile into the visitor’s collarbones to essentially guide them out, and his manner was in an odd way ecstatic, so he had the effect of escorting the others out by the arm despite never leaving his stool, merely smiling as though the visitor were a footsoldier ordered to march over and out the threshold at his command, and so the visitors scooted backwards with what they convinced themselves was an ironic nod, scooted backwards but never once did any of them stumble or misstep, always the man’s banishment of them put navigation on their side, so that the more they absorbed of his militant smile, the more vividly the blueprint of the studio’s disorganization appeared to their minds, distilled instantaneously into their nerves – no, instinct had never arisen in any of them like this before, in these voyeurs of a declining master who remained sitting so still as they pulled the delicate door shut behind them that they wondered if all the brushes and paints and cloths and props apparently tossed across the workshop hadn’t simply revolted of their own accord.

Today, this man’s humiliation is more deeply known, an awareness originating among the town vagrants, for it was they who first took note of his long night walks, on which he trailed a caravan of prints in a small wagon, walking deliberately along such streets at such times where and when no one would present a potential customer, on which occasions he might instead, though his thought expressed itself in movement merely and never in word, acquire and assemble the pity of the town’s most base, who tacitly agreed to his beggary. And after months of observing his nightly passage they relinquished their streets to him, considering them nothing more than a shroud for this man, their sidewalks encroaching at his incorrigible life like a pure white tip of flame, yes, his pace was even slowing to abide that incendiary, which would not be at peace, and thus it became understood that this was a man whom freedom punishes, who bore a shame so great that it burrowed and now clings to every aspect of his inner dealings, so that he confines himself to the most marginal and typical of actions, so that he sits hours on end on his stool, getting up only to strew his materials around the room, to dribble paint, to crush pigments, to crumple cloth, to shuffle panes of canvas, in short, to array a mise en scène of artistic vocation, of obsession and total engagement, of inspired devotion – in vain efforts to chip away at the ever more punishing guilt that so smoothly and gracefully shows its visitors straight to the door.