27 May 2012

The Untouchable

by John Banville 

In a letter to his friend Paul Fréart de Chantelou in 1649, Poussin, referring to the execution of Charles I, makes the following observation: "It is a true pleasure to live in a century in which such great events take place, provided that one can take shelter in some little corner and watch the play in comfort." The remark is expressive of the quietism of the later Stoics, and of Seneca in particular. There are times when I wish I had lived more in accordance with such a principle. Yet who could have remained inactive in this ferocious century? Zeno and the earlier philosophers of his school held that the individual has a clear duty to take a hand in the events of his time and seek to mould them to the public good. This is another, more vigorous form of Stoicism. In my life I have exemplified both phases of the philosophy. When I was required to, I acted, in full knowledge of the ambiguity inherent in that verb, and now I have come to rest -- or no, not rest: stillness. Yes: I have some to stillness.
         Today, however, I am all agitation. The Death of Seneca is going for cleaning and valuation. Am I making a mistake? The valuers are very dependable, very discreet, they know me will, yet I cannot suppress the unfocused doubts that keep flying up in me darkly like a flock of restless starlings at the approach of night. What if the cleaners damage it, or in some other way deprive me of it, my last solace? The Irish say, when a child turns from its parents, that it is making strange; it comes from the belief that fairy folk, a jealous tribe, would steal a too-fair human babe and leave a changeling in its place. What if my picture comes back and I find that it is making strange? What if I look up from my desk some day and see a changeling before me?
          It is still on the wall; I cannot summon up the courage to lift it down. It looks at me as my six-year-old son did that day when I told him he was to be sent to boarding school. It is a produce of the artist’s last years, the period of the magnificent, late flowering of his genius, of The Seasons, of Apollo and Daphne, and the Hagar fragment. I have dated it tentatively to 1642. It is unusual among these final works, which taken together form a symphonic meditation on the grandeur and power of nature in her different aspects, shifting as it does from landscape to interior, from the outer to the inner world, from public life to the domestic. Here nature is present only in the placid view of distant hills and forest framed in the window above the philosopher’s couch. The light in which the scene is bathed has an unearthly quality, as if it were not daylight, but some other, paradisal radiance. Although its subject is tragic, the picture communicates a sense of serenity and simple grandeur that is deeply, deeply moving. The effect is achieved through the subtle and masterful organisation of colours, these blues and golds, and not-quite-blues and not-quite-golds, that lead the eye from the dying man in his marmoreal pose -- already his own effigy, as it were -- through the two slaves, and the officer of the Guard, awkward as a warhorse in his buckles and helmet, to the figure of the philosopher’s wife, to the servant girl preparing the bath in which the philosopher will presently be immersed, and on at last to the window and the vast, calm world beyond, where death awaits.
         I am afraid.

(pp. 180-182)

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