WE SHARE AN UNSTATED ASSUMPTION. This is not a bold claim, as it has too great a witness, too large and broad a testimony to deny. From this common perspective comes the woeful stare, the head shake, the sigh-ridden pause; from it is born the painful representation, the assessment that clearly, or so it seems, scans a life and pronounces what looks true of it: “In the end, he lost his way.” And along with this appraisal, an attending image may arise from the mists of memory, present itself for a moment in all its noble pity: of one who would not hold to the known path, who smiles familiarly before he wanders off again, fading away with a lost portion of our old happiness.
In the end. What we are is what we are at the end. All that matters is where we stand at the last point—just before the falling, just before the floating. It all comes down to this: what we look like, sound like, in what direction our faces are turned, toward sun or shadow, at the point when there is no longer sun or shadow, but only the direction we have chosen to face. Where are we then? Who are we then? That is what matters.
Surely, we are born on the cord of time, on the line that runs between some certain month, day, year, across a plane of sweat and context that stretches—God-willing—by way of a long, long hyphen to a reasonable distance, to another certain month, day, year at some multiple of twenty from the first. But the question is whether we are really so like wine upon the day of its uncorking, or so like a tree on the day it is felled. Are we really the bouquet, the “note” on that day and that day alone, or the number of rings—count them from the center—and only the final one has meaning? And are they worth trusting, the children that this perspective yields?: one dark, with a whispered despair—“he lost his way”; one light, with a faltering courage—“he found it”—“forgave all”—“saw what he should”—“confessed what he must.” Is either justified—boon or burden—in the end?
Yes, it would seem. Yes. Through the—God-willing—long tally at some multiple of twenty, we draw the line and add. Positive or negative? Hold your breath; turn your face; pray.
But think about it differently (a way in which you will be no more comforted and no more disturbed than if you hold to the previous view); think like this: If time is a lie, and eternity the truth, then why is the last thing the only thing? If there is no line or cord, if there is no breach point—no plane that must, however fractionally, be passed over and transformed; if, as we are told, there is no edge and no axis to the universe; and if, as Saint Augustine says, God is “an infinite circle whose center is everywhere and whose circumference is nowhere”; and if, say I, age is only an administrative device, like a chute that keeps the stock from scattering from its proper path; then where and when things signify, where and when virtue is attained, vice shriven (or vice versa), is more complex. Then our renunciations—our recantings and new-found creeds—are not a matter of time, but a matter of sincerity. After all, a man who was once strong, but who has lost the will or the belief that exercise will do him good, nevertheless retains that residual vigor, that core of power, that allows him, if not to lift what he once could, still to lift what he can—which might be more than hundreds of men who are convinced he is mistaken in his faithlessness, and are convicted of the good he has foresworn. It is no use saying that such a man is no longer strong; he is only not as strong as he was. What wanes is not gone; a fading light is still a light; a stone abraded by wind and rain remains itself. And so perhaps do goodness, virtue, faith—still live in the sweepings, in the dregs. Virtue motivates even in its palsy. Love that once was strength and speed may become a wasting space, perhaps a bruise or torpor, but is still felt and can still surprise with flashes of its nature, as nature is not changed by flux. Nor is it changed by disavowal of its possessor. A “good heretic” is not as oxymoronic as we might think—if we think like this.
Witness Pierre Morin, the old and near-forgotten novelist in Graham Greene’s short story “A Visit to Morin.” In the story, the narrator is a skeptical man who as a youth had been drawn to the author’s strange, enigmatic works. While orthodox in their overall tenor, the novels nevertheless contain something wild, something “gamey,” as Morin himself puts it, in their vehicle. Portraying believers in a dogma that his times had already dismissed as a preposterous old fancy, Morin’s stories teased out the extremes of this outrageous view—the assumption of a certain virgin, for example—and pushed them either to their absurd conclusions, or reduced them to their “legal minimums.” About all this was the smell of the Jansenist, of the Augustinian, but one nevertheless committed to the core of his faith.
The narrator, on a lonely Christmas trip to France, seeks out Morin at a midnight mass. There, in the crystalline cold of the village church, lit by candles that burn straight as icicles in the frost, the man easily finds his author among the shuffling, silent coats and gloves—as Morin is the only other person in the crowd who abstains from communion. The others seek out their God, who “travels along” the altar rail, while the two protagonists in the story hang back. Afterwards at Morin’s house, where the narrator is invited for a glass of wine, he learns that the author has not in fact communed for twenty years. Like a character in his own novels, Morin stands at the end of a long slip of sand, a finger of ground from which he cannot retreat or advance—unable to believe any longer, but equally unable to lose his faith.
He had excommunicated himself upon the taking of a mistress, and would not profane the confessional booth by seeking an absolution for that which he had no intention to amend. With the loss of the sacraments, he says, he lost his belief in “God and His Son and in His Angels and His Saints”—a loss that came just as the church had warned him it would. And in this loss is the paradox of his convictions: he no longer believes in the holy objects of faith because he has cut himself off from what feeds that belief: he has lost his belief just as a tenet of his faith foretold. The faith is so precious to him that he dare not attempt communion, out of fear that belief in the objects might not return with the holy host and the blessed blood. Trapped there, in this cold dark night of the great theophany, he waits—both faithful and faithless, at the same time an apostate and a mystical communicant in that which he loves both too much and too little to risk.
And what is such a man—at the end, in the end? The story stops there, and Morin is left in the quandary, as frozen as the night. Both things are true of him—what he was and what he is now; but which matters? What are we witnessing in this moment that Greene portrays—a dawn or a dusk? Life or loss? Do what Morin was and what he is make sense independently of each other? Is he not testament to the concoction, the wild brew that a given man represents, regardless of the time in which he represents it?
You could as easily look back upon Morin at the naissance of his belief—at the ancient Christmas night of his faith, and charge that first flowering with naiveté, with the kind of childish wish-fulfillment that shows itself a fraud when age and circumstance present themselves. You could as easily blackwash what was, make it untrue, as you could take his final despair as definitive of his being. For that is another assumption we have in common: we trust despair; we give full credit to its sincerity, and it wins our unqualified belief; it is always hope that we call false; it is faith that we style blind and shallow. Why then say that he “lost his way”? Why not go further and say he never truly found it to begin with?
That is sometimes the case, of course: “seeds that fall on rocky ground.” But they are not the subject here. The subject here is those who, like Morin, were not dupes of fashion or fools of a motley trust, those who—even if they never nurture a dogma or find shape in a creed—once, for however short or long, fell upon rich ground, took root, flourished in courage and kindness. It is no surprise that they still weather winter, drought, flood, and from what we see of them, and from what they see of themselves, are haggard in the end, despite that which sustains them, deep below. There is nothing to belie their wan, autumn cast, especially when it is the last we see. Who can speak of spring at such a sight, of green when all is brown, of all things new when the end is dressed with dying? What good is talk of Sunday morning when Friday follows Friday follows dusk-tombed Friday?
But that is the folly of the last, or of paying too close attention to it. For the last remains within the tyranny of time, a despot that holds the head within its grasp and will not let the eyes avert to aught but what it shows them—the final thing. It is the calendar, the clock, the last grain of sand dropping through the glass that matters, it says. But if the imaginative rebellion suggested here is undertaken, if the hands are shaken off and the eyes closed, there is this alternate view—not so taken with the calendar, more trusting of the scales. Not bound to the sight of the last thing in its assessment—to the last point in a narrative progression—but to the thing’s sheer weight, its magnitude.
Witness a physical hypothesis. Einstein’s theory of general relativity says that space-time is like a sheet pulled taut; if something heavy is placed upon the sheet—like the sun—it dimples the surface, pulling it down, displacing the fabric according to its mass. A lighter object—like the earth—if thrown onto the sheet, would be pulled toward the larger because of its greater weight. Gravitational force acts in this way, drawing the smaller object into orbit around the larger, not because of any elective attraction between the two masses, but because of the depression the larger makes in the fabric of space. In this way, matter warps time. The linear is made subject to the substantial.
If temporal and spatial concepts are subject to the forces of gravity and motion, then does not a different metaphor have a claim to our concepts of goodness? Is the heft of the thing not worth as much as its station? If essence takes the place of mass, and the degree of extant virtue contributes to the fullness, or the richness, of that essence, it displaces more of the moral universe and has more consequence on it than the accident of disposition. Time and space end at the speed of light, the great man said, but weight, imploding upon itself in the “black hole” of awful and awesome lore, pulls all within it, even time and space. So does not the pull of the good’s mass create a force that draws others to it, that begets their hopes and prayers despite the place where it rests, at the last? The gutter never belied the good that lay there, even the good that belies itself there. If this is so, then the important question is not “Where were you last?” but “Where have you been?”
Witness the great discovery in visual representation—perspective. Yielded from times that saw a monumental sea-change in philosophical and cultural worldview, the Renaissance, perspective plumbed depths and distance from what had been only flat, linear, and pasted-on. However lovely the renderings of pre-quattrocento images, they could not pull upon the human imagination or heart with anywhere near the same intensity as sculpture, not until the breakthrough that allowed objects to gain weight, permitted figures to grow fat and round.
A distinction must be made: while the two-dimensional icon is the standard of religious representation, it claims a higher purpose—not as art, but as living metaphor, as portal to the infinite. It is meant to move the viewer out of the self to the other world, not as a means to understand this one. But art, a craft that is not so ambitious, must transport through the imagination; if it transports at all, it is not by lifting the soul by way of a window, but by moving the heart by way of the eyes. And if it remains two-dimensional, it cannot do this effectively. The very expression has become a cliché for that which is closed to further discovery, as there is no further knowledge to gain. Two-dimensional art was given its turn to tell the story of what it represented, but that was all it could do. Depth, which came by way of perspective, added character, and is not so wed to narrative as it is to epigram—a defining, self-reflexive moment. There may be a story portrayed in the painting, but the part of the rendering that is beyond plot, the true soul of the work that makes it great, is what comes with dimension. Depth is the middle C of representation; it is the part that orders, that makes all else glow with inner light, calling attention to more than is, or even could be, represented. “After” or “at the end” has no place in the ecstasy; the eye is drawn to the vanishing point, to the place deep within the center, beyond sight, unrelated to either end of a line. The meaning is greater, weighs more, than an object lesson at the tail end of a tableau.
In Caravaggio’s Deposition of Christ (1604), the five Good Friday mourners are arranged in a sliding diagonal above the clean, heavily muscled body of a God who has deigned to die. The perspective of the viewer is not allowed to wander about the surface. The sight-line is drawn with implacable power to the absolute center of the painting: Christ’s hand that lies graceful and relaxed upon his stomach. From this place in the work’s core the eye can find the points in a well-known story: the deposition. The hands of Mary Cleopas are raised in grief-struck supplication—the other hand of Christ himself lies at the end of an arm that drapes down from the body towards the sepulcher, as though touching the waters of a dark pool—like the death/life paradox of the baptismal bath. But never is the commanding center, the indomitable gravity of the painting, lost to any point in the narrative, not even to this greatest of final acts.
Instead, all the elements in the work speak of the crush of weight, the profundity of the mass that pulls everything into it, including the mourners themselves, who are dragged down under the heft of their God, as they too will enter the tomb with him, in less control of what they seemingly handle than the corpse itself. Even the “cross” of cloth that symbolically lies behind the body—a post made of John the Evangelist’s red tunic and a crossbar made of the Christ’s white shroud—collapses and sinks into the aperture. Nothing in the painting can escape the force, the pull of this weight, ordered about this center. And yet nothing in the work, despite the part of the salvation story exhibited here—the last act—speaks of endings. All is triumph and control, within the command of the one who is mourned. No small part of this masterwork’s victory lies in the paradox that the Jesus represented seems as much the Christ of the transfiguration, resplendent and powerful, as he does the Christ of the crucifixion. If there is a greenish pallor to his face, there is also a luminescence to his flesh; and is the mouth held slack, or is it open in prayer? The savage death wounds barely mark the flesh. So is this an ending or a beginning—and is what is shown here any more definitional of the Christian God than an earlier point in his earthly walk? It is the center, the core, that tells the true nature of the work and carries its message—not the last mark on a narrative line.
But such a point presents a larger question. Is the Christian God’s whole life not meant to be seen as a sacrifice? How is his birth—the kenosis of all that is and ever was or ever will be into the limiting vessel of only what we ourselves have been and are now—not a lifelong, thirty-three year crucifixion? If he never ceases to be himself, then is not the last act, though the greatest expression of who he is, more hermeneutic device, a spectacle for the beholder’s understanding, than it is definitive of the teacher himself? If he is, at all points and eternally, defined by sacrificial love, then he is as much that in the manger as he is on the cross. In other words, the cross is the means by which we understand most, but not some final great trajectory of self-realization in which the great “being” is more “being” than he was before. We tend only to see the last, or to be most affected by it, but that is merely a human limitation—perhaps owing as much to memory as to perspicacity. In T.S. Eliot’s “Journey of the Magi,” the key to the dramatic monologue is expressed in these terms. The world-weary narrator speaks of what he saw, long ago, in the nativity, but is confused as to whether he has witnessed a birth or a death. Considering the effect of what he once beheld in the stable, he says—and says for us—he “should be glad of another death.” Death and birth, beginnings and endings, have become all the same, because of the nature of what has happened—and still happens. Gravity has warped time.
Witness a rule of grammar, a conceptual distinction, and the greatest interrogation ever made. In the mystery of the self-reflexive statement, the predicate adjective spreads through the space of syntax a meaning that curls back upon itself, like the tip of a tail caught within the mouth of a fantastic figure in a gothic bestiary: I am John—I am good—I am honest. The entire point of the statement is a set of images that look at each other through the mirror of the verb “to be”—John defining I, I defining John; good defining I, I defining good. When the great patriarch Moses—the first border agent at the state line separating the temporal world from the eternal—asks for God’s ID, he is supplied with the eternal passport. God gives him a syntax of compression, of reflexivity; he gives him a statement, not a narrative: I AM. There is no litany of time here, no story of six days of making and a seventh day to rest; there is no relation of a chronicle, as Job received. There is only the monumental crush of fused existence and essence—the “white hole” of all being from which creation emanates. When God gives us his name, it is by identifying his substance, not by relation of his story.
Finally, witness a man I knew—a man who is dead now, whose end has come. Large in stature, in ability, in heart, and unfortunately, in appetites, he arrived on my parents’ farm when I was still a child. He had been brought to stack hay, driven there because he had no car. His sockless feet were crammed into split, cracked shoes, the soles of which flapped against the leather uppers as he walked. In the dead of winter, he wore only a pair of white coveralls with the sleeves cut out. My father bought him a coat, and all the clothes he would wear for the next so many years.
Who knows his age then; who knows where along the hyphen that stretched between the numbers of his life. I do not want to know now, as such a commitment distracts me from the way I remember him, and what I remember most—a man marked by what he could do:
1) Clip the side of a hill while standing up, his mammoth weight balanced on the uphill leg as he braved the monstrous tractor’s turning over and crushing him with its cold steel load. He did not blink at that;
2) Throw bales of hay to the top of a stack—whether on a wagon or in a loft—so often and so fast that the stackers above him grew angry and fearful of his power, and his amused use of it. He laughed at that;
3) Crawl beneath a church on a day colder than collective memory, armed with an acetylene torch, so as to unfreeze the frozen pipes—a Saturday in January—his day off from work, and all because it was my sister’s wedding. Only he could come; only he would. He accepted that;
4) Recite with encyclopedic accuracy the history of boxing in America;
5) Lift the front end of a car on a bet; eat an entire two-layer cake by holding it in one hand, like a cookie; laugh a room’s spirits to the rafters.
This man would come to own a house, a car, to manage a team of workers at the hospital where my father got him a job; and he would come to lose all of those things, to find his way to jail too often (sometimes unfairly; often, not), to feed himself with narcotics for the last twenty years of his life, until he faded into a slightness that stole all but the weight of his eyes. At last, he was committed to the obscurity of a nursing home, an obscene joke, like an old bull staked inside a dog pen.
And so his end spoke of tragedy, and I, like any other, am drawn to it. But I must wrest myself free. Because there is a thing that is truer of him, that weighs heavier than his end, that gives the right perspective, that pulls all within it in a reflexive grammar. That he did not get many chances, and perhaps squandered the ones he was allowed, is nothing when balanced against this mass.
He was raised by his mother, who died at some point that I cannot locate on either his line or my own. But I remember the effect of his love’s loss: a man as large as a doorway, sitting within the confines of my parent’s car, as they had come to console him. He did not cry, but his face was wet with grief as my own mother told him of higher things, of other lives, of promises offered for the taking. He had said, and to my knowledge, continued to say, that he did not believe—a fact that in the South of that time was a moment of great amazement. But on that day, he listened. And after that day, he brought my mother something that had always been in the shack in which he grew up: a thing of sea-blue glass—a jug of some sort—as big around as a washtub, with a fluted neck and a cut glass stopper. Its use he could not imagine; its value was unknown. But he knew it was good; it was the best thing that he had; and he gave it to my parents for what they had bothered to do.
At some further point along the line, his appetites got the better of him, and the crime of what he did to himself robbed him of all he had won from life. And at the place where his life and ours could no longer transect, he discreetly slipped away. He would not call anymore for work, although we would hear of him from time to time, and on odd occasions, his paths would cross ours. But in his squanderings, his prodigalities, which must have been desperate and involved him with desperate men, he never asked for anything, and more importantly, never turned upon the people of his former life. He could have, but he did not. And for that reason, he was never feared. There were many people for my parents to be on guard about, laborers over the years of dubious character and suspicious history, ones to be wary of and to lock the gate against. But not him. Never did we ask whether he would come to steal or threaten. It was understood that he would not do such a thing, because he would remember. He had bestowed a gift, and would not take it back.
It sat in a place of honor, the blue glass jug. I think at one time (perhaps still?) peacock feathers sprouted from its top, their iridescent blues and greens capturing the color of the glass itself. And what I believe of this man now is captured within the testament of his gesture. Its weight belies the time that followed it. Despite the relentless weather of drink and drugs, not even the accumulation of those things could wear away the substance of a man who was better than his end.
We are mostly lost to ourselves. We are the subject of our own deepest bafflement. We do not know our motivations for good or ill. I venture to say that we are often unsure of what we believe—at moments feverish with our devotions, at moments stripped clean of them. Within the cycle of one sun and one moon, the altar can become a table; the candle, deficient light; the sacraments, superstitions; prayer, a pathetic mutter trapped behind the teeth.
But what then? What does that prove? Does that mean that they were never more to us? Is it true that we are made hypocrites by our final doubts, by our trailing despair? Do they give the lie to what once was, simply because they follow what once was, in time? How much of a being heavy with virtue is eroded by its final disposition? Conversely, are we so sure of what we are (and here is the disquieting part), so triumphant in what we believe, in what we have taken up so quickly—when it is not habit, but novelty? At the end, we love, hope, believe, but surely it can be said, dry-eyed and without sentimentality, that the death-bed conversion smacks of a poor man’s misreading of Pascal.
Then again, perhaps love and its children, faith and hope, are born more easily than they are killed, and are heartier than even we may know. They never seem sickly at their birth; on the contrary, they are often so full, round, heavy, and lively that they must be tempered with rubrics, with the shape and form of dogma. They must be ordered so that they can grow. But their reality is proven by their sincerity, their heft, not by their birth date, and so should they be assessed in the last.
That would square with a merciful God, who can see better than we, and can hear more than we have spoken. Our groanings, unintelligible to us, are said to be intelligible to him, coming from places we do not even know we have been. Despite the last complexion of what they seem, despite the last testament of the one who speaks for them, they live on in the deep loam, the fertile mass, the soul of souls. They last despite their own foreswearing, love on in a rich, wet, hollow of a wound past knowing, and in a place long before endings. They weigh too much to forget.
The Image archive is supported in part by an award from the National Endowment for the Arts.