Essays

Days of 1952

On the rapture of experiencing art in solitude

James Merrill
Black and white photo of light coming through windows in the apse of San Vitale in Ravenna with mosaics. Courtesy N.P. Sullo.
Basilica of San Vitale, Ravenna. Courtesy N. P. Sullo.

MY HALF-BROTHER’S LIFELONG PASSION for Central Europe was somewhat gratified by his year as an exchange teacher in Austria. Naturally he would rather have left his school in St. Louis for Poland or Hungary or Yugoslavia, where the history was more colorful and the intellectual life more intense, but would those hardship zones have been fair to his wife and children? Graz, where they had settled after the first months in Vienna, was an interesting compromise, a small, abashedly Germanophile city staggering back to peacetime, with its own university and an unbombed opera house. By the time I arrived to spend Easter with the family, Charles had already given several extracurricular lectures, and been unnerved to see how many citizens in the intimate hall were studying him through opera glasses. I suggested that the glasses, unknown to him, might have been reversed for the sake of aesthetic distance. “Giving,” he said, delighted by the joke while adapting it to his own ends, “the impression of a larger room, hence a more hörenswürdig lecture.” Humor was our common ground. Six years apart in age, we hadn’t greatly troubled to know each other until I was in college. Even then, his taste for history and politics left me cold, and I hereby erase from the record a remark he made, at twenty-four, about Proust. But Charles had an appealing flamboyant side. He loved opera long before I did. At Harvard he wore an ankle-length Polish military cape and played the flute like Frederick the Great. And he took, over our father’s initial knee-jerk objections (“How can he say he loves her? She’s the first girl he ever dated! The damn fool – can’t he see she’s just after his money?”), a wife I adored from the start for her wit and equanimity. His marriage, like our sister’s, was extremely stable. Longer than I these children du premier lit had seen the havoc caused by our father’s restless libido. Forewarned was forearmed.

Charles and I had quite different ways of coping with the paternal menace. He’d actually taken a course in Military Strategy at college. Thus, while I sought to postpone or altogether avoid confrontation, my brother’s breathtaking repertoire of shock tactics, diversionary movements, positions secured by verbal barbed wire, and so forth kept the old man on the defensive and the rest of the family on the edge of our chairs. By 1950 the war had been won. Neither Charles nor I was expected to join the Firm. Hands had been washed of us; thanks to our trust funds, and to being American, we could do as we liked, live far from home in poorly furnished apartments, wear suits of burnt-orange Turkish wool tailored in Prague or cheap puce velvet too tight to sit down in, entertain left-wing ideas or moot young men – it hardly mattered which. All these parodies of luxury were made possible by our baffled, hard-working, womanizing parent in his English cambrics and cashmeres; one could hardly blame him for the hour when he saw red.


DR. DETRE GAVE ME THE WHOLE WEEK off for Easter – nine days, counting both weekends. Charles and Mary had wanted to meet me in Yugoslavia, but one of the girls was recovering from chickenpox, so we sat tight. On Easter Eve we attended Parsifal at the Graz Opera. The production was old and shabby, the tenor wore brown street shoes along with his tunic of motheaten skins, one Flower Maiden used pince-nez in order to see the conductor, and Kundry woke at Klingsor’s bidding with a shriek that sounded suspiciously like a sneeze. Yet the reverential audience willed into fitful being a performance they could leave exalted by. We ourselves slipped out after the second act. Next day, church bells, the apartmentwide egg hunt, the feast. Every so often the children -Cathy and Amy in their dirndls, little Bruce in his lederhosen – abandoned their play to overrun me like vines and come to rest heavier than a lapful of watermelons. Would they have happy lives? Would I be a father myself one day?

The best we could manage in lieu of Yugoslavia was a night in the little border town of Radkersburg. Our hotel hung over the narrow, fastflowing river; we could see the ruins of the bridge or keep warm in bed gazing wistfully at the Croatian landscape. Charles brought along a novel he’d just finished writing – he filled notebooks in longhand, like Sir Walter Scott – and I began reading it as dusk fell in the warm Stube where we would presently order a bottle of wine and, later, dinner. Radkersburg couldn’t have seemed further away from Rome, or Charles and Mary (he frowning over a political biography, she placidly sewing) from the people I’d been seeing there. No less remote was the heroine of Charles’s tale, a young Austrian who’d survived the war. Worthy of the noble ideas she embodied, she shared her author’s gift for discourse but fell short of his irony and charm.

“How’s Marilyn?” asked Mary the next time I looked up. To my surprise I felt able to follow every stitch of her thought. She’d begun wondering how the children were getting along, entrusted to a favorite baby-sitter, but still. … She’d savored anew, as I’d been doing for the past hour, the glow of family feeling. Sensing how much Charles’s and my slow evolution from wary siblings to respectful and affectionate grown-ups owed to her, hadn’t she then – an only child – gone on to dream by the fire of an ally, a lively younger sister-in-law with whom she could marvel at their two impossible husbands who kept refusing to grow up, who would always … ? Marilyn had been a hit over Christmas; from St. Louis herself, she knew the school my brother and a friend had opened there, knew people he and Mary knew .... Then, too, surely the problems I was being treated for, my touchy sparks and green splinters, would begin to settle, like the blaze in the Stube’s porcelain stove, for an overall companionable warmth, if only ….

“Marilyn’s fine,” I said. “She sent love.”


THEY SAW ME OFF ON THE NIGHT TRAIN. I am not, however, going straight to Rome but to Ravenna. This daring plan, wholly without precedent, leapt from my head full-grown as I was booking my tickets at the American Express. I would for once do something by and for myself, unaccompanied, unsupervised. It is cool sunless midday by the time I check into a hotel and consume, standing up at a dented metal counter, my ham sandwich and Campari-soda while poring over a map of the town. Had Dr. Simeons’s injections not kept me in Rome the previous June, I would no doubt have gone to Ravenna with Claude, ticked it off my list of places to see, and never have found myself there now. I leave the bar and head for San Vitale. It comes over me, as never before, how dull and full of self-pity I made those two or three days in Rome. At the time I thought I was spending them wisely, writing an anniversary poem, for it was already a year since my reunion with Claude in Cassis. But the poem – which imagined us together among the mosaics I knew merely from postcards – came out willed and sour, resentful between its lines of the carefree time he was having without me. His dry peck on the cheek was more thanks than I deserved.


AS I APPROACH SAN VITALE, a small brick building squat and clumsy beside its tall domed neighbor, like an X in some architectural tic-tac-toe, catches my eye. This will be the tomb of Galla Placidia, where the oldest mosaics are to be found. One may as well begin at the beginning; I go in. Nothing has prepared me for what I see: a midnight-blue dome, an old skull thick with gold stars; in the vaults, more stars, precise as snowflakes and big as streetlights enlarged by mist. The space, effortlessly anthropomorphic, has been created, it seems, to dramatize the inner life of a seer or a sibyl, the miracles hidden beneath weathered, baked-brick features, upraised in thought. The means to this lavish end are simple, durable, anonymous – nothing of the “personal” brushwork that marks a square inch of canvas as the work of such-and-such a master. Yet instinct and initiative are everywhere at play. Thousands upon thousands of glasspaste dice – each by itself dull and worthless as a drawn tooth – have been shrewdly cast to embed a texture now matte, now coruscant, with colors fifteen hundred years have failed to dim. Through narrow alabaster panels, their art-deco patterns lymph-washed and bloodless, like human tissue on a slide, comes a glow I try to resist, if I am going to make out … look! There’s the buon pastore seated among his lambs. But this young shepherd hasn’t yet evolved into a Christian savior. Cross held upright like a primitive bass viol about to be played, he is still Orpheus, or Apollo; and I recall from my dictionary that mosaic derives from a Greek word meaning the work of the Muses.

I stand as though in the mind of some young, wide-eyed god, extravagantly in love with detail and grieved by nothing under the sun.

I step outside gasping as if having run up three flights of stairs. Tomorrow at leisure I can take it all in more sensibly; now is the time for rapid impressions. I enter San Vitale. Here is greater splendor yet, placed higher up. No night sky overhead. The old astronomer's heavenly vision gives way to quadrants of a cupola where green foliage on gold alternates with gold foliage on green, like sun filtering into a rain forest. I stand as though in the mind of some young, wide-eyed god, extravagantly in love with detail and grieved by nothing under the sun, not even the bigotries he has already begun to foster, or the self-determined faces in those two imperial retinues above my head. Here gender confronts gender, and gaze, gaze. Real people are being caught in this act; the emperor needs a shave, one of Theodora's ladies twiddles her ring. But reality throws no lasting wrench into works of such sumptuous invention. Round each panel runs a border, no, a series of borders, each a decorative idée fixe of the utmost plainness, which notwithstanding, when put together, become steps in an argument so daring yet so crucial to the rest of my life that I know I must get it by heart – not now, however. I have glimpsed peacocks. I've noticed that the motif of counterpoised sheaves or horns of plenty in an archway is being echoed, on pilasters elsewhere, by one of paired dolphins. The dolphins have black-and-white eye shadow, red mouths and crests and tails. Their tails are linked and their heads thrown back, as on the last chord of some ecstatic universal tango.

Stunned, I walk out into sunlight. Sarcophagi lie about the churchyard, carelessly, their contents turned to tall grass; and it is true – death doesn't matter. An old coachman recognizing my symptoms proposes a ride to Sant’ Apollinare in Classe. Here I see a mosaic meadow full of sheep; in Sant' Apollinare Nuovo, the sages whom Yeats called "the singing masters of my soul." By evening next to nothing remains unseen. I have taken not a single photograph. I sit by myself in the hotel dining room, brimming with insights, free associations that sparkle my way from remote crevices of the past: a forest scene composed of butterfly wings from Brazil; sun rising over fishscale wavelets; a richly iced gingerbread cottage; my grandmother's beaded evening purse, turned inside out. "Childhood is health,” said Herbert, and here is mine, along with Christianity's. Merely to know that these early, glistening states are still attainable – ! Had Ravenna been a psychiatrist, today's hours alone would have cured me.


THE NEXT DAY I fill in gaps and go back to the places that struck me most. Morning light in the starry vaults of Galla Placidia show up textures piteously withered; it is like gazing upon the mummy of Ptolemy. In San Vitale, by contrast, Jesus stands waist-deep in Jordan. His genitals are visible through the glassy ripples. I open my notebook and begin to sketch a section of the decorative borders which like an idealized circulatory system, here tracing a groin, there confining some pious vision to a lintel's brow, link quite a number of structural elements. Its central nerve, one golden tessera in width, bisects this blood-red passepartout, branching at fixed intervals to create a run of alternating ovals and oblongs. These enclose perhaps a dozen tesserae apiece, just enough for the nice gradation of greens in the oblongs, blues in the ovals, to convey depth – so many gold-framed, kohl-rimmed swimming pools reduced to snuffbox size. Punctuating the spaces between pool and pool, big pearl-white colons invite the eye to pause, then move on. A second border, which parallels or diverges from this one at whim, resembles an awning of white flounces, each blazoned with a squat black cross. A third – but no matter. The profusion of motifs, their vigor by now a reflex long past thought, gives out a sense of peace and plenty in the lee of history's howling gale. It isn't the creeds or the crusades they tell of but the relative eternity of villas, interior decoration, artisans, the centuries of intelligence in fingers not twenty years old. While empires fell offstage, these happy solutions to the timeless problems of scale and coherence stretched, like flowers to the light, wherever a patron beckoned. Palmyra lies in one direction, Addison Mizener's Palm Beach (for better or worse) in the other. Or Tiffany glass. There is no limit to the life encoded by my anthology of mosaic borders. For this morning hour in San Vitale I feel like the aborigine who can describe all the people and animals who have traveled a road, just from whatever grows along its edge.


BACK IN ROME I telephoned Claude. "I'm so proud of myself," I said, "I did it! " – no sooner realizing that he might be hurt by what I was about to imply than not caring if he was. He of course, I went on, had been living that way most of his life. And while even I had been known to go to the opera by myself – did that explain why I loved it so? – I'd never believed, never trusted, never been told what rapture solitude could be in a place like Ravenna. The sheer hours on end of seeing, of never having to exchange remarks or keep looking around in case one's companion was bored – why, it made all the difference in the world. "Like a note struck once," I finished, "that turns suddenly into a trill. To be alive and alone – !"
"I know," said Claude gently, "it's so sad."


POSTSCRIPT 1992

Scripture and fiction are full of nicely opposed brothers; why shouldn't life be? At Ravenna the decorative elements moved me to tears, whereas Charles would have exclaimed "Tiens!" on reading in the guide that Charlemagne had built a replica of San Vitale in Aachen, and agreed with those visitors who valued the basilican purity and thrust of San Apollinare in Classe above the pastoral charm of its mosaics. He would have been more interested yet in what it was like to grow up in such a town, in schools and labor unions, employment rates, and the chances of survival for a chamber music society. He would have gone out of his way to meet the priest or the podestà over a lunch I'd have sat squirming through. Perhaps his being a family man, with five clever children, caused him to focus, wherever he went, upon community issues rather than the natural or artistic splendors of the place. In my view these concerns held one back; it was important to travel light. But where, if it came to that, were we all going, and what was the big hurry?

William James spoke of Henry as his "frivolous younger brother," and that is how I tend to see myself next to Charles. A devout pragmatist, he founded a school (Commonwealth, in Boston) where the lessons of history were paramount. Here students met their opposite numbers from Poland or Ghana, sang the Lord Nelson Mass, and learned to draw their own conclusions about Job, Mao, capitalism, and the right to die. Years later they would speak of him with reverence. He has gone on missions of mercy to far corners of the earth and worked for understanding between blacks and whites. Among countless low-profile good deeds he helped with the renovation of the Graz state theater. (His reward? A festive luncheon at the motorcycle factory.) My brother writes voluminously still, always in longhand, the burden involved but graspable, his whole message behind every word. I have done none of these things. Low on public spirit, without "ideas" in his sense of the word, or should I say leery of a faintly pornographic element in their frontal presentation, in writing I have resorted, after the first scrawled phrases, to keyboards of increasing complexity, moving from Olivetti to Selectric III, from Ouija to this season's electronic wizard. Now every morning, rising like Kundry in Parsifal with a shriek and a shudder to do my Klingsor's bidding, I make for the arcane, underworld glow of a little screen. Presently minimal bits of information, variable within strict limits as the tesserae of a mosaic, flicker and reassemble before my eyes. As best I can – here slubbing an image, there inverting a hypothesis – I set about clothing the blindingly nude mind of my latest master. Line after line wavers in and out of sense, transpositive, loose-ended, flimsy as gossamer, until a length of text is at least woven tightly enough to resist unmaking. Then only do I see what I had to say.


SOON AFTER MY RETURN FROM ROME I settled down. With David Jackson it was easy to renounce New York and its pitfalls for the stabler routines of life in Stonington. My New York friends – like Robert or Hubbell – complained that I'd let myself be "taken out of circulation." How could I give up the music, the exhibits, the midnight suppers? In truth I asked nothing better. I'd seen so many paintings, heard so many operas – fuir, là-bas, fuir! It was time to get to work.

We were both writing novels, David on a table in the kitchen, I on a sideboard under the tin dome of the dining room we'd painted flame red, perhaps to placate the powers that one day, such was our delight in the old wooden building, might set it ablaze. (Sages standing in God's holy fire? Each time we left we shut our manuscripts in the refrigerator.) We had a record-player, a rowboat, a brass bed, but few invitations, and no telephone. Just then, when life had never been more fulfilling, the genetic angel, as in a parody of the Annunciation, struck. What was this – nearly thirty and not yet a father! If through childlessness I'd been spitefully putting my parents in their place, parenthood would put me in theirs; how else to make peace between the generations? But I had better act quickly lest I be too old to enjoy my children. (David's marriage, unrewarding to both parties, though his wife was now our best friend, had cured him of any such nonsense.)

In real distress I relived that Easter in Graz, with Charles and Mary, the restless play of growing limbs and minds, the heart-stopping repose of moonlit sleepers glimpsed through open doors. And now Freddy wrote that he'd fallen in love; soon he would be on his way. With no mother lined up for my child, I began to look, willy-nilly, at the local females. Was that tomboy divorcée still fertile? What about the teenage daughter of new friends, whom David was teaching how to drive? Anxiety swept me. Dr. Detre, by then conveniently in New York, felt that "settling down" was itself the issue; young men like us didn't belong in resorts for the idle or retired. He made a few suggestions (go back to teaching, don't spend so much time by yourselves) and the crisis passed. Another summer, and the house had filled up- not quite what Dr. Detre had in mind – with Ephraim and Company, who were prepared, like children, to take up as much of our time as we cared to give but whose conversation outsparkled Ravenna and who never had to be washed or fed or driven to their school basketball games.

James Merrill (1926–1995) was one of the foremost American poets of the later twentieth century. He published eleven volumes of poems, in addition to the trilogy, The Changing Light at Sandover. He also wrote plays, novels, and a memoir.
Originally published:
April 1, 1992

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