The following is a chapter in Richard Rodriguez’s new memoir, Darling: A Spiritual Autobiography, forthcoming this October from Viking.
GOD formed you of dust from the soil. I was a sort of an afterthought. A wishbone. He blew into our nostrils the breath of life and there we were.
You were his Darling Boy and I was his Sweet Little Evie. The air was soft. We were made of clay. You were, anyway. He would hold up all manner of silly things he made for us and we were supposed to name them with silly names. Everything we did seemed to delight him.
When he first showed signs of earthquake, at least I had the wit to say, “Now which tree was that again, dear?” But you just stood there with juice running down your chin.
God said to me: I will multiply, multiply your pain from your pregnancy; with pain shall you bear children. God said to you: Damned be the soil on your account, with painstaking labor shall you eat from it, for from it you were taken. For you are dust and to dust shall you return.
God made for us coats of skins and fur, and clothed us and sent us away.
Which is where we find ourselves: Nature runs through our bodies like rope. We give birth from our bellies. I do, anyway. We chew. We swallow. We regret. We decompose. These are laws of Nature. Natural laws are the brown laws. We hate them. We prevent birth. We eradicate polio. We clone goats and exchange hearts. We peer through our telescope. We wear starched ruffs and underclothes. We compose divine comedies. Still, we must excuse ourselves fatuously whenever Nature calls.
One day, Francis approached a bundle of rags on the road. The bundle of rags (there was a man within) commenced rattling a gourd. The gourd had pebbles inside. This served as a warning that the ragman was a leper. Lepers had bruised skins like the skins of pears. Francis left the road to the man of rags and walked another way for he feared leprosy above all things. But his fear of catching death that day was of exactly the same intensity as his attraction to the ragman’s suffering. Why should the ragman suffer? Francis had walked into an equation.
He had to run to catch the leper up.
The bundle of rags recoiled from Francis’s approach, whirled like a shredded felucca. Francis ran again and stopped once more in front of the leper. Francis took two thick coins from his pocket. He placed the coins in the road as if coins could tame a leper. Raising his eyes, Francis saw the ragman had no fingers, only two fibrous stumps, to one of which someone had tied the rattling gourd. Francis removed his kerchief and knotted the coins in it and tied the little purse to the leper’s cloak. A puddle of urine formed at the leper’s feet.
Francis took the leper’s palm gently in his hand and raised it to his lips.
After the incident on the road, Francis embraced every leper he met. Francis began to call all creatures brother or sister. Francis began to dress in gunny in emulation of the poor. He slept under hedgerows and within the porches of churches; he had no more plan than a sparrow, and the citizens of Assisi considered him foolish.
Uniforms often are brown, the common denominator. Workmen wear brown, many do. Department stores used to advertise “work pants” and “work shirts,” usually khaki—a word from the Urdu, from the Persian, meaning “dust” and, in English, denoting a fabric of olive or yellowish-brown. Sir Thomas More used the Latin word cacus to denote excrement, and English has kept the word as “cack.”
The uniform of labor is a metaphor for singularity of purpose or function. The military uniform represents allegiance to an abstract entity, as if that entity were uniform. In a religious community, the habit, the robe, represents a vow to fit your body to an ideal. Your conception of fate, or love, or whether you like a skin of milk on your pudding is subsumed beneath your habit.
Navies wear blue. Land armies wear brown, as do the Franciscans. Uniforms, shaved heads, humiliations, acronyms are enlisted to turn singular lives into a manageable mass. Before the modern era, armies met at daybreak upon an open field. Because combatants needed to be able to distinguish an enemy, there were red coats on one side and blue coats on the other, as on the stage at La Scala.
Since World War I, land armies have clothed themselves in terrestrial disguise—uniforms are pre-dappled with shade or pre-bleached into sand.
If you have seen the photographs of Spencer Tunick, whose one idea is to pose multitudes of nude bodies in parks and plazas around the world, you will have noticed that, en masse, in the uniform of nakedness, there is little discernible difference between tall-short, rich-poor, fat-thin, young-old, male-female.
We do not like other people to see what we are carrying. It is none of their business. We therefore carry boxes and suitcases, baskets, trash bags, trunks, purses, Manila envelopes, coffins. There is nothing more mundane than a brown-bag lunch, nothing more intimate. The plain brown wrapper is a disguise and a discretion.
Brown can be a kind of fame, as well. As did the Franciscans, United Parcel Service has won brand identification with brown—with the color of cardboard and Kraft paper and clipboard. “Kraft brown” is a low grade of strong paper used for wrapping and bagging. Books used to be wrapped in brown paper, tied with string, and sent through the mail just like that. Commercial laundries used brown paper. I don’t know how it is, but at some point laundry paper became blue. Whether brown or blue, such paper is ephemeral because it contains discoloring acids; it will deteriorate at a faster rate than paper from which acid has been removed. “Deterioration” is a brown noun of green virtue.
Carol Shields, in The Stone Diaries, wrote of “how fundamentally lonely it is to live inside a body year after year and carry it always in a forward direction, and how there is never any relief from the weight of it.”
Brown attaches to pedestrian considerations. The soles of feet thicken from walking; they form a rind like citrus rind. Shoe leather thins from walking. Millions of people walk the earth on brown soles. It is a good feeling to have thick, dry soles. It is a miserable feeling to have cold, wet feet.
The sky is large and unimplicating. The road of life is one thing after another. Humans seem perpetually to be hauling property from here to there. There is a great movement of people across the continents of the earth—people who have been forced from their ancient beds by war or by famine or an empty purse, but also by curiosity. People steal over borders and wade through rivers and hide in bushes to show up at dawn on the streets of new cities, as if they have been there all along.
The soles of feet are maps of sorts, continents. We leave them behind eventually.
People in some cultures distinguish private life from public life by removing their shoes before they enter a dwelling. Ritual washing of the feet has significance for many religions of the world. We would wash brown away, whatever is sinful or sordid or earthly away, before we enter a place we hold sacred.
Moses must remove his sandals (for they are made of the dead) before he may draw near the Burning Bush, the presence of the Living God.
Do you imagine that some languages, dialects, inflections, are brown because of the complexions and not the pink tongues of the people who speak them? I have always thought American southern accents have less of landscape in them, or of color, than of humidity, drollery, time. Whereas a rich, rolling Burgundian accent sounds earthy to me. An Irish brogue—the dialect of spoken English of the Irish—is called, in English, by the name of an old brown shoe, “a rude kind of shoe” (Oxford English Dictionary), worn in the “wilder parts of Ireland” (ibid.). An Irish tongue is imagined to have clod clinging to it.
God commanded the Israelites to make a chest of acacia wood to proportions God provided. The chest was to have a skin of gold and on the lid of the chest two sphinxes of gold, their wings outstretched. Rings of gold were to be affixed to the sides of the chest, and, passing through the rings, two poles of acacia wood, one on each side, covered with gold. Thus would the chest be carried.
Into the chest the Israelites were to place the Tablets of the Testimony of God given to Moses on Mount Sinai. Into the chest the Israelites were to place a vat containing flakes of manna, in order that future generations would see what Yahweh provided the Israelites in the desert.
The Word of God was thus a weight in the world to answer the question: Is God present with us or is he not?
The Word of God was a weight to be carried through the wilderness and to be housed in a tent of threads and colors and of a proportion God provided to the Israelites.
The Word of God remains a sacred weight for the descendants of the Israelites, as for Christians and Muslims. The five books of Moses, called the Scroll of the Law, called the Sefer Torah, dwell in a tabernacle. Sefer Torahs are made by the hands of scribes who have studied patience, patience having the proportion and the duration of the letters of the living word.
This is how the Word of God is passed on: The scribe copies the words of the Torah onto a parchment made of the skin of an animal that one is permitted by the Torah to eat. The skin is split; the hairy side separated from the flesh-touching side. Parchment is made from the side of the skin on which hair grew. The skin is scraped with a knife. The skin must be cured using a mixture of gallnut and lime to make a parchment that is pliant and durable. Every segment of the parchment must be squared. Only black ink may be used, made of lampblack and gum and olive oil, and dried in a mold to a block; the ink is made fluid with water. The letters must be made with a stylus of wood or reed or the quill of a clean fowl. The scribe must pronounce each word before he writes it. Before the scribe may write the name of God, the scribe must say I intend to write the Holy Name. If the scribe makes a mistake of a word, the word may be excised by scraping it from the parchment with a sharp knife. If the scribe makes a mistake in making the Holy Name, the segment cannot be used but cannot be consigned to fire or earth but must be placed in a storeroom for mistakes.
The segments are sewn into a scroll with threads of dry tendon of clean beasts. The scroll is affixed to two rollers of hard wood; the rollers are fitted with flat discs of wood on each end, and finials of wood or ivory. When the scroll is closed, the scroll is girded with a ribbon of silk and robed in a mantel of the law. When the scroll is closed, an ornament is fitted over the finials at the top. The ornament is called the Crown of the Law.
The Word of God is heavy, as heavy as a child of five years; as heavy as a man’s severed leg, borne aloft. The scroll is unwieldy to carry, as unwieldy as a stack of forty plates. The scroll may not touch the ground.
If the honored man who lifts the Torah from the Tabernacle should make a mistake, if the Torah should sway, if the Torah should succumb to gravity, if the Torah should touch the ground, then not only the honored man must atone, but the congregation must fast from sunrise to sundown—their flesh will be subtracted from one day for having been careless with the weight of the Word of God.
Men and women consign the Torah to memory. The minds of men are as muddled as vats of glue. But the Word of God is justified, black and legible. Thus, not only by their backs do men bear the weight of the Word of God, but also in the scrolls of their memories.
In two clicks, I will find you an online Torah.
The majority of people who are alive do not find it impossible to believe that a computer can sort and sift, relay, recall, correct, cure, solve, destroy, filch, tabulate, and turn out the lights.
An increasing number of people who are alive believe that an all-knowing God—or let us say, an all-caring God—is an impossibility.
The computer is a diminishing physical weight and is not of flesh but is of synthetic or mineral substances. But the computer’s content is enlarging, unstable, ethereal. I tap on the screen. I activate a sifting of digits—as many as the sands—digits align into commands that summon images of letters, black letters; black is itself a series of numbers—eventually a Torah. The computer cannot, though I can, pause to worship the Holy Name. One supposes a code might be written for hallowing the Holy Name—perhaps the letters could be made to appear to flame or to reflect a passing bar of light as do the simulated brass letters of the titles of TV movies.
Some American soldiers recently gathered several worn copies of the Holy Koran from the shelves of the makeshift library of a jail in Afghanistan. Someone had noticed the Korans had markings in them—words in the margins, highlighted passages. Perhaps the prisoners were passing coded information within copies of the Koran?
The soldiers took the sacred books and burned them in a bonfire.
I’m sure the soldiers considered burning to be an appropriate destruction of a sacred artifact. Americans consider flame to be a purifying element. What the soldiers did not stop to consider was that destroying the Word of God is an affront to God.
How can God be affronted by a couple of GIs building a bonfire? It is the faithful who are affronted on God’s behalf.
The danger of weighted knowledge is literalism.
The danger of weightless knowledge is relativism.
The manufacture of my iPad, despite the fact that it is a miracle of weightless synthetic information, has already added burden to the misery of mankind. An item from the New York Times (I can easily find the date on my iPad; here it is—January 25, 2012): “Aluminum dust from polishing iPads caused the blast at Foxconn’s plant in Chengdu. Lai Xiaodong was among those killed. He had moved to Chengdu, bringing with him his college diploma six months earlier.”
Even now a pretty brown cow steps nymph-like through a green pasture in Shaanxi Province; even now she takes the spirit of the living God into her delicate nostril. God knows she will soon be melted to glue, all unwilling, to bind this book.
In the beginning was the Word: the Word was with God and the Word
was God…. The Word was made flesh….
Jesus said to Thomas: Put your finger here; look, here are my hands.
Give me your hand; put it into my side.
We will now rebuild the tree. The tree I have in mind will take thousands of trees and many years to build. I have a photograph before me of the Long Room of the library at Trinity College, Dublin, completed in 1732. The ceiling is a curved vault of candle-fumed wood. The floor is a plane of honey. The photograph shows a receding corridor on each side of which rise arched alcoves. Within the alcoves are shelves, from floor to ceiling. On the shelves are books bound in leathers of every hue, all brown. There are wooden banisters, benches, pilasters. The only appurtenances that are not brown are white marble busts of philosophers, poets, playwrights.
The room is massively silent. It ruminates upon a thousand forests and a thousand cities and personages, revolutions and plagues, ships lost and continents discovered. Sentences, formulae, drawings—knowledge is the sap of this tree. The tree is alive though all the philosophers represented by all the busts are dead.
The room will speak if questioned.
One of the earliest English definitions of brown—Samuel Johnson’s definition—is of any color compounded with black. We have come to think of brown not only as a mitigation of black, but as an alternative to black, or as an abeyance. Love is stronger than death, say. Death being black. Or, beer does more than Milton can. Beer being brown. As if brown were a separate consideration. (And malt does more than Milton can / To justify God’s ways to man—A.E. Housman’s assertion.)
Earth is itself a canted color-wheel, a cycle of vegetable, mineral, animal, and atmospheric accommodations to the earth’s passage around the sun. The segment, the turn of the earth, that corresponds to brown in the northern hemisphere is autumn. Consider, for example, the brown field in autumn, the stubble field. In climates where winter is cold, the autumnal field represents at once Nature depleted and Nature bountiful. There is something about the indeterminacy of brown that lends itself to such paradox.
She is the matronly season, Autumn, comfortable in her warm landscape. Ripe Autumn can nearly be heard to sigh: Here will I rest a bit, my bounty is suddenly very heavy. Her lids droop. Her smile is pleasantly hazy. Her days are shortening. But the sun is delicious. Isn’t the sun delicious? Thoughts turn to elegy and apples. Try one of these, she says. Then, she says, What do you suppose death is like?
In September of 1819, the English poet John Keats, aged twenty-four, took a long walk before dinner. He was stopping for a time in Winchester. “I’d never liked stubble-fields so much as now,” he wrote in a letter to his friend John Reynolds. “Aye better than the chilly green of spring. Somehow, a stubble-field looks warm—in the same way that some pictures look warm. This struck me so much in my Sunday’s walk that I composed upon it.”
Season of mists and mellow fruitfulness,
Close bosom-friend of the maturing sun….
The ode “To Autumn” was written by a young man as if it were a young man’s poem—Keats embracing his equation—as if the benediction of an ample day will not fail.
Still, not an autumn returns that I do not remember you by it, John Keats—that first day of which I am able to say: I can feel fall in the air. Though no longer young, I expect to rise in fall.
In 1625 John Donne, the English poet and Anglican priest, in a sermon at Saint Paul’s Cathedral, London, expounded on creation, as thus: When God made the world, he put into it a reproofe, a rebuke, lest it should seem eternall, which is, a sensible decay and age in the whole frame of the world, and every piece thereof.
In Los Angeles, on the hottest day of the year, the electrical grid surges upward in a digital tsunami, crests, browns out. The Kumtag Desert in China drowns the Silk Route, flows onward toward the city. Earth warms. Blankets of snow are thrown off. Rivers sink into their beds. Seas rise vertically like bamboo forests. Human activity forms an interesting brown cloak that floats over Lagos and Bangkok. Treacle-colored, coal-heated nineteenth-century London sounds wonderfully atmospheric in novels. But it was not wonderful. Eyes, throats, lungs burned; mouths blistered.
The first Earth Day was proclaimed, rather than astronomically calculated, by Senator Gaylord Nelson (D) of Wisconsin, at a conference on overpopulation in 1969. That same year, at a UNESCO conference, John McConnell, a California environmentalist, proposed a global Earth Day to coincide with the March equinox. Earth Day has evolved into an anti-historical celebration of prelapsarian Nature—Nature before human intrusion. The ideal human relationship to Nature, therefore, becomes one of corrective restoration. In the words printed on my cereal box: “Always leave the earth better than you found it.” Green spring is an appropriate metaphor for the ambition of a perfectible world. Do not the branches of trees flounce about in pubescent green?
It becomes ideological to see brown as the harbinger of the end of Nature. But the bark of the tree—the wise part—forms protectively about the livid core. Surely autumn is as necessary a part of Nature as spring.
And brown has always been the sum of our breathing and eating and moving about. Even in the days of yore—days of Odyssey, days of Gilgamesh—smoke floated over villages and towns, heartening the traveler, still many miles distant.
There is a relationship, as young Keats noticed, between autumnal hues and warmth. One can certainly find a cold brown landscape. I grew up in such a landscape, one that might have been painted by Millet. When the fog rose from the fallow field, it was very cold in December. Even so, mine in the Central Valley of California remained, even in winter, a baked landscape. Nothing about it was raw. If only for its hue, it never appeared desolate to me. The earth was rich beneath its crust. I knew that if I dug down far enough—as far as gravediggers dig—I would find a room as warm as April.
I retain my liking for baked landscapes. For desert and the caramelized cities. Once, in an Italian hill town, on an uncomfortably warm August afternoon, I entered a restaurant, the only restaurant, where several clay ovens were blazing and citizens were ordering platters of roast pig for their Sunday dinners and drinking from earthenware jugs of cool wine. It was insanely warm. By and by, the room grew tolerable. I now declare I find the memory of it to be of exactly the right temperature.
There is evasion involved in cuisine, as with all human embarrassments, an evasion not of our cursed biblical state as grain- and root-eaters (from the soil shall you…etcetera) but of our evolutionary, renegade taste for blood. Of ourselves as hunters. For we have not only the necessity to eat, the capacity to hunt, but also to pity our prey. Who does not pity the lamb?
Nor do I like to eat pale things. Poached eggs or fish or fowl. I want a buttered crust. I had an aunt who used to make a meal of boiled chicken with yellow skin and white gravy—and it nearly drove me mad to watch her. I prefer my warm-blooded fare to be certified cruelty-free, to arrive in unrecognizable “cuts” and yet to be served up with a purgatorial crust. I want malt and Milton.
In Kathryn Davis’s novel Hell, there is a recipe for blancmange: Almonds are pounded to extract their milk, the milk is then strained, then sugar and transparent gelatin are added. The alloy is filtered once more through a white napkin.
The resultant mixture…will be in fact utterly without texture, without substance, almost, you might say, without material existence, so that…to swallow it would be to swallow nothing, to attempt communion not with the body and blood of God’s son but with the holy ghost itself….
Chocolate, on the other burner, is one of the densest, brownest, most guilt-ridden substances we have learned to put in our mouths. It is also, curiously, one of the most refined—refined not from straining, but by compaction. Cacao was cultivated and eaten throughout Mesoamerica. In 1528 the Spanish explorer Hernán Cortés transported the first cacao beans to Europe from Mexico. The refinement of chocolate proceeds as follows: The cacao tree puts forth pods. The seeds are harvested from the pods, fermented, dried, bagged. The chocolate manufacturer blends several strains of the beans for flavor and color. The beans are roasted and ground, then ground again to release their butter, then rolled around in drums and I don’t know what all.
We relish taking in what most closely resembles—excuse me—what comes out. We are slow ovens. Ninety-eight point six. Brown is our biological point. Being alive depends on keeping warm. A warm room can be of any color, but heat feels brown, even though exhalations of breath on a cold morning are ghostly white. A bed as white as blancmange can feel as brown as a stable or a nest.
There exists a warm-blood club, no question. Warm blood might summon to your mind an albino bunny with red eyes, but the concept, you’ve got to admit, even if you have never taken a nap with your dog, even if your dog is black, is brown. And from warm blood comes sentimentality, which must be a vestige of fur.
No sober discussion of brown should omit mention of Marcel Duchamp’s painting Chocolate Grinder (No. 2), 1914, wherein three inexorable brown drums rest on a chassis that is elevated on decorative antique-moderne legs. The painting is beautiful; it is an accurate depiction of the physics of pressure. And it is ridiculous.
Now we will cut the wind from the tree. This entails killing the tree. Cut at the base. Birds fly upward. The tree may experience sorrow after its hundred amber-blooded years.
Cut the tree in sections, twelve feet long. Cut one of the sections lengthwise to appraise its grain—its diseases, indecisions, parsimonies.
Some years are deep brown cellos. Some, lithesome violins. Some years are mantels or pillars or transoms. Some are ploughs and spoons for stirring. The rest is broom handles, toothpicks, clothespins. The rest is firewood and paper.
Take a block of the finest grain and carve of it a scroll. Make a thin slice of a softer grain, as thin as ham. And then another. And cut from these two scarab shapes for front and back. Cut it some gills. Bow its belly and thump its back. Seal, sand, varnish. String chords through the frets of its neck.
We will then recompense the wind and the leaves. We will make music.
In Manhattan, Billy Baldwin designed a brown study for Cole Porter—a famous room in the annals of décor. Ebony shelves were supported by brass piping. The dark walls were of tortoiseshell design on Chinese lacquered paper. There was a piano, several club chairs—this was a first-class cabin with no apparent clutter of creation.
The “brown study” is a term that originally referred to a state of mental absorption or abstraction. Etymologically, in this case, brown equals gloom. The fictional detective Sherlock Holmes was described by his fictional chronicler, Dr. Watson, as “in a brown study,” a state of intense rumination, often accompanied by tobacco smoke, morphine, or Paganini. I wish now to conflate the term with the site. When Holmes and Watson first engaged rooms at 221b Baker Street, Watson described “a couple of comfortable bedrooms and a single large airy sitting room, cheerfully furnished, and illuminated by two broad windows.”
Through many subsequent volumes of stories, the rooms darken considerably with the clutter of newspapers, chemical experiments, and notebooks—the clutter of overgrown boys—but also with an atmospheric residue of the contemplation of evil. So that, in the ultimate volume, after many adventures, “it was pleasant to Dr. Watson to find himself once more in the untidy room…. He looked round him at the scientific charts upon the wall, the acid-charred bench of chemicals, the violin-case leaning in the corner, the coal-scuttle which contained of old the pipes and tobacco.” Holmes’s study is a type of the necromancer’s tower. Prospero’s cell is another. The scriptorium of Saint Jerome. Merlin’s cave. Faust’s gothic chamber. Even Henry Higgins’s library. The room represents the workings of the mind. The room must be untidy in order that mental abstraction will be orderly.
Sigmund Freud had two brown rooms. The first, in Vienna, where he invented a psychoanalytic method in much the same way that Conan Doyle invented detection—through an accumulation of case histories. The second in London. In either of Freud’s brown studies, in both, books as well as prints and antiquities are displayed with an abacus-like precision. The seat of disorder in the room is a divan, covered with an irregularly patterned, plum-toned oriental carpet. Disorder enters Freud’s study through a subject’s subconscious.
There are substances that throw down roots in the human organism, roots that coil themselves around the little bones and dip their sharp nibs into the chemicals of the brain to draw up treaties, dependencies, visionary loans. Most of these substances are brown—brandies, whiskies, the sedimentary wines, opium, marijuana, coffee, tea. Among them the most delightful is tobacco.
Ass-eared leaves are harvested in sultry climes, cured to a golden brown, graded, then cut to various uses—pipe, cigar, cigarette, snuff. To ingest a lungful of tobacco smoke is to open an artificial bay, a small space of time, a monastery of privacy between one moment and the next, between one marriage and the next, between one sentence or one task and the next. It is unfortunate that tobacco is ultimately destructive of the organism it so befriends. One’s lungs become a shambles.
“You don’t mind the smell of strong tobacco, I hope?” asks Holmes.
“Take the invalid to the sun,” the gray doctor in nineteenth-century novels urges. The tubercular poet, against his better judgment, goes to Rome.
In the twentieth century, among light-skinned populations, a vogue for tanning began with the dawning age of tourism. The novelist goes to Mexico. Applying brown to oneself is different in its implication from painting health on one’s cheek because it risks a confusion of racial and class identity. For the tourist, tan may be a mark of leisure. But tan is also the laborer’s mark. In Cairo as in Quito, brown cloaks the distinction between the white-suited visitor and the company of criers and beggars in the bazaar.
In D.H. Lawrence’s short story “Sun,” a New Yorker named Juliet travels to Greece for a sun cure. Juliet takes the sun for a lover: “Sometimes he came ruddy, like a big, shy creature. And sometimes slow and crimson red, with a look of anger.” Juliet’s cure extends to a gardener she sees. She describes the gardener’s attraction as “his vitality, the peculiar quick energy which gave a charm to his movements, stout and broad as he was.” The reader is led to recognize the gardener as an amorous surrogate of the sun.
When the gods of Olympus sport with mortals, they take on the disguise of flesh:
Venus: You see that girl?
Cupid: (A vacant stare.)
Venus: I overheard someone on the colonnade remark she has beauty to rival Venus.
Cupid: Surely not, Radiant Mother.
Venus: Oh, Radiant Mother! You know as well as I do the degenerates prefer that greasy sort of ripeness. Look how she goes. Inside, you know, they are nothing but filth. I want you to shoot her.
Cupid: She looks harmless.
Venus: She paints up, too. I’ve seen her at it with a turd of beetroot. They eat filth, they think filth, they make filth. They die in filth. Have you ever smelled one?
Cupid: Of course I have.
Venus: Do you like the smell of them?
Cupid: Not particularly. Apollo says you get used to it.
Venus: Apollo should keep his nose in the clouds where it belongs. I’ll bet you’ve never smelled them when they cut their hair.
Cupid: Do they cut their hair?
Venus: Otherwise they look like complete monkeys. They have hair in the most comical places.
Cupid: Apollo says it tickles. If they are so beastly why do we wear their parts?
Venus: For sport. For butter. For fun. Form is nothing to us. Clouds. Trees. Thin air if we feel like it.
Cupid: Thin air is boring.
Venus: I want you to shoot an arrow through her big fat tit. The little idiot will fall head over heels for the first hairy back that flutters by.
“Lend me thy cloak, Sir Thomas.” The brown cape conceals the beggar-king, the sacred heart, the anointed head. Shakespeare’s King Henry wraps himself in Thomas’s plain cloak on the eve of the Battle of Agincourt in order that he might move unrecognized among his men. The twin device of disguise and epiphany is as old as the hills. Biblical Joseph is reunited with his jealous brothers. Richard the Lionheart reveals himself to Robin Hood. Caesar to Cleopatra. Arthur to Guinevere. Beast to Beauty. Cyrano to Roxanne. “It is I. All along, it was I.”
Disguise is an attribute of the gods; modesty is not. The God of the Desert is an exception. The God of the Desert instructs that Aaron and his sons, and all priests following from their seed—“a law for the ages”—are to wear breeches of linen during sacred rites “to cover the flesh of nakedness; from the hips to the thighs they are to extend” in order that priests not flash their humanity during the gruesome work of the slaughter of beasts.
God’s prescription seems only to confirm something that we already feel about ourselves, about our human nature, as represented by the flesh of nakedness from our hips to our thighs: that our private parts, as we call them, though definitively generic, are made of special stuff; are neither purely reflexive, nor completely governable. We are confused. We are profoundly crafted.
The revelation of our nakedness to strangers, to lovers, has the potency of sacred awe, much like the prelude to a sacrifice. A hush falls upon the audience of a movie or a play when an actor disrobes. But when an actor appears suddenly naked, as if in the midst of life, the audience will laugh at its own embarrassment.
Even in a doctor’s office, the moment of physical epiphany may be accompanied by a sense of awe. Young doctors of the twenty-first century resort to an Edwardian deportment at such times that one might call priestly. The patient feels herself a sacrifice.
In 1925, at the Théâtre des Champs-Elysées in Paris, American dancer Josephine Baker appeared nude in a series of good-natured anthropological parodies. I quote Janet Flanner, the Paris correspondent for the New Yorker, who was there:
[Baker] made her entry entirely nude except for a pink flamingo feather between her limbs; she was carried upside down and doing the split on the shoulder of a black giant. Mid-stage he paused…swung her in a slow cartwheel to the stage floor, where she stood…an unforgettable female ebony statue. A scream of salutation spread through the theater. Whatever happened next was unimportant.
Calvin Klein’s notoriety came with his advertisements for male underwear in the 1980s. Klein employed the waxed, darkly tanned nude as both mannequin and garment. Underpants were a way of affixing a label to a body. Put on the garment and you put on nakedness. The notion that one’s body could be worn (and not only one’s body but one’s tan, and not only one’s tan but one’s vacancy) became a conceit for a number of other designers, notably Gianni Versace. After Versace was murdered in Miami, frequent patrons of his Greco-carny boutiques received a memento mori in the mail—an album of flamboyant Versace designs interspersed with photographs of models wearing nothing at all.
Preindustrial populations wore furs and skins from practical necessity. Pelt was collateral to meat. We no longer need animal skins for warmth. In the city, therefore, a fur coat becomes a complicated conceit. Luxury merges with transgression. The socialite inhabiting the skin of a wild animal is enacting Beauty and Beast at once. If one were to play the conceit to the end, as Princess Diana famously did, one might visit one’s reluctant paramour late at night wearing a fur coat, a diamond necklace, and nothing more. Queen and Huntress.
Long after Adam and Eve imagined they could hide from God, long before Princess Diana masqueraded as a predator, Queen Marie Antoinette dressed as an opéra-comique shepherdess. The French speak of nostalgie de la boue, not with specific reference to La Petite Ferme, but applicable. Literally, boue is muck. What a splendid paradox, that a high civilization should cultivate nostalgia for a time opposite or before or below—a descent into uncivilization. Marie Antoinette as boue-peep, tripping through her Meissen barnyard, a little poetic fantasy within a political fantasy, within a world of filth.
We associate death with blackness because, I suppose, when we close our eyes we can’t see. As to actual death, the death of a point of view—who can say? Death might well be as blue as a robin’s egg. In the light of day the process of aging—and death itself—is brown. To the observer, death is brown. Time is bacterial progress.
In the cleaned, “original” version of the Sistine ceiling, Adam appears pale, beautiful, dead—his eyes do not yet see. The weather is fine. The void is a pale spring afternoon. Earth is green. The divine hubbub looks like the interior of a luxury sedan. God is massively potent and in love. Unborn Eve is tucked under God’s arm, obviously a gift for the darling boy; she could be a nymphet on the cover of a Murdoch tabloid.
Sometime late in the 1980s, Pope John Paul II was consulted by a cardinal prefect concerning a proposal to clean and restore the frescoes of the Sistine Chapel. In the 1980s, John Paul was a vigorous, handsome man. In the 1980s, the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel had been left to darken for four hundred Roman summers. Michelangelo’s Creation and Judgment wore the shadows of so many years.
At the apex of Michelangelo’s grand design, God reaches toward Adam to enliven him. In the damaged version, the four-centuries-old sinful version, Adam is brown, a figure of exhaustion; Adam seems to sink back into the earth upon which he reclines. God is prognostic, and his half shell of celestial hubbub shudders in turbulence. There are cracks in the void.
The Nippon Television Network of Tokyo proposed to pay for the restoration of the Sistine frescoes in exchange for exclusive rights to photograph the restored ceiling and walls. It took Michelangelo four years to paint the Judeo-Christian epic. It required more than double that time for the frescoes to be cleaned. Conservators used cotton swabs to apply distilled water to an acre of shale-like cloud. The Vatican installed an air-filtering system to circumvent any future deterioration of heaven.
In February of 1820, John Keats, aged twenty-five, suffered the first hemorrhage of his lung, losing eight ounces of blood. He left damp England on the urgent advice of his physician. By November he was living in Rome with Joseph Severn, a young painter who had accompanied him on his journey and who stayed on to care for him. Keats had a relapse in December and fell gravely ill. Keats forbade Severn to wish for a return of spring. Keats prayed each evening would be his last on earth and wept with each rising sun.
As a young man, Karol Wojtyła had been a playwright and actor of parochial repute. When Wojtyła became John Paul II, he became one of the great theatricals of his century. He played the pope for the age of television. By the time he died in 2005, half the people alive on earth had known no other in the role. The planet his audience, the pope seemed never without an intuition of the camera. Kissing the tarmacs of airports!
Those for whom decorum is a religion scorned the theatrical vulgarity of some of the trappings of John Paul II’s papacy—the popemobile, for example. But the planet loved it. The popemobile served John Paul, as did the pop music, the lights, the windjammer chasubles, the stadium masses modeled after rock concerts.
During the final years of his papacy, John Paul II lost control of his person to Parkinson’s disease; his speech, his movements, slurred.
Young Mr. Severn drew Keats in his bed—28 January, 3 o’clock, morning: drawn to keep me awake; a deadly sweat was upon him all this night. The sketch conveys the very smell of the night’s ordeal. Keats’s hair is damp on his forehead and cheek; his face is sunken; closed lashes darken the hollows beneath his eyes. The brown penumbra that circles John Keats’s prone head seems to draw ink from his drowning breath. After the poet’s death, Severn corrected his sketch to publish it as the formal pieta: Keats on his deathbed, February 23, 1821.
In her last decade, when the famous legs came unstrung, when the famous face could no longer be repaired, Marlene Dietrich hid herself from the eyes of the world. She became a prisoner of our memory of her face on the screen. She closed the drapes of her apartment on the Avenue Montaigne. John Paul II was the cannier theatrical. He was willing to portray suffering—dragged as he was through Saint Peter’s on a wagon, in a pointed hat, drooling. He found the spotlight. Here was Lear, here was Olivier; here was Samuel Beckett.
The pope’s last stage was his bedroom window, a perfect proscenium: The curtain opened. The old man was wheeled into the light of the open window to utter a benediction—his arm flailing uncontrollably, clutching his forehead in a simian gesture, his mouth opening and closing in tortured silence. The microphone was quickly withdrawn. The curtain began to close as the figure receded.
At the end of his life, in great bodily pain, Saint Francis had an intimation that he dwelled, on earth, already in paradise. Francis composed a summation, a prayer he called the Canticle of Brother Sun, wherein he commended and blessed his familiars: Brother Sun, Sister Moon, Brother Wind, Sister Water, Brother Fire, and Mother Earth who nourishes and rules us. As he lay dying, Francis welcomed one final aspect of Nature to his Canticle: Be praised, my Lord, for our Sister, Bodily Death, whom no living man can escape.
Toward the end of his short life, Hamlet, in a characteristically dark humor, traces for Horatio the ignoble decline of great Alexander. As thus:
Alexander died, Alexander was buried, Alexander returneth into dust; the dust is earth; of earth we make loam; and why of that loam, whereto he was converted, might they not stop a beer barrel?
What clay should teach us to reply to Hamlet is that loam is as much the beginning as the end.
If you are afraid of its darker implications, it is not brown you fear but life.
The Image archive is supported in part by an award from the National Endowment for the Arts.