The Beautiful

“. . . it was all about matchmaking, finding the right home” (Donna Tartt, The Goldfinch, p. 397)

This morning, I’m nostalgic (no, Bob, be honest–weepy) for friends past and present. Of course it’s 4:00 a.m. again. Again I’m at my writing table, a cup of dark-roast coffee, a square of dark chocolate, the smooth touch of this Blackwing 602 pencil leading me across the pages of my Moleskine notebook and, oh yes, Beegie Adair’s jazz trio playing Always On My Mind as in you were always on my mind.

Susan Pigott

I’m thinking of colleagues at the university I love and, lately, grieve for. I’m thinking of friends still there holding the line against ignorance, intolerance, prejudice, hasty generalizations, and I guess because Sunday is the Marine Corps birthday, with Monday being Veterans’ Day, I’m choosing an ugly metaphor from Vietnam, that is, “holding the line against” sappers, moonless night, small men naked and greased, sliding through concertina wire, a blade in their hand. Forgive me. It’s the song making me overly dramatic, maudlin, sentimental. When the sun comes up, I’ll be embarrassed I wrote this, but I’m holding my line as well. No retreat.

It’s no surprise, I’m sure, that I’m doing what little a poet can to bolster the thinning ranks of liberal arts, fine arts, and theological sisters and brothers fighting Saint Paul’s good fight, running the good race against advancing philistines. So I’m thinking of my departed friend George Knight, theologian and former NASCAR race driver before he got religion (not to say stock-car racers are not religious), who directed me to The Jerusalem Bible for answers to my questions about preachers, about Why?, and gave me advice not found in the Bible (probably not): When in the race and cars collide and cluster spinning in front of you, don’t try to avoid the crash; aim for the heart of the wreck, gun it, drive through the whirling chaos, you coming out safe and grateful on the other side. I told George I had heard this before, what I had been taught to train the seventeen-and-eighteen-year-olds in my Marine platoon: If we were surprised on a jungle trail, ambushed, we must turn and charge, yelling, directly into the fray. To hesitate meant we were all dead. Good advice for many occasions. I miss George.

The Goldfinch, 1654 (Oil On Canvas), Carel Fabritius (1622-54), Mauritshuis, The Hague, The Netherlands, The Bridgeman Art Library

Enough of that. I want to talk about literature, what I love, specifically the art and beauty, the truth of poetry and fiction. My favorite poem of B. H. Fairchild’s in The Art of the Lathe is “Body and Soul.” My second favorite is “Beauty.” They speak the hard, complex truth of the ambiguity of beauty and ugliness, beauty winning out because of what, like the NASCAR drivers, beauty has passed through to a temporary respite, that earned gratitude:

“And isn’t the whole point of things–beautiful things–that they connect you to some larger beauty? Those first images that crack your heart wide open and you spend the rest of your life chasing, or trying to capture, in one way or another?” (Donna Tartt, The Goldfinch, p. 757)

I’ve been slowly working my way through, as if in therapy, Donna Tartt’s Pulitzer-Prize-winning novel The Goldfinch. I could only take so much at a time. I finished the novel two days ago. It’s what triggered my writing this Post to you, to me. I think maybe Donna Tartt counseled me through the first 742 pages so I could get to pages 743-71. Thank God I made it to those final twenty-eight pages. This is not a review or an explication of the novel. You can read it for yourself. I just need to tell you what Theo learned, what he, like I, had known all along, but almost despaired knowing: what art and beauty, what loss and remembrance do to us, for us. Thank God.

Self-Portrait, oil on panel by Carel Fabritius, c. 1645; in the collection of the Alte Pinakothek, Munich.

Carel Fabritius (1622-54) studied with Rembrandt from 1641-43. Tragically, he was killed at the age of thirty-two when the Delft, Netherlands, municipal gunpowder magazine exploded. The Goldfinch, 1654, is Fabritius’s most famous painting. You can read more about him on line.

For Theodore Decker, the first-person narrator of Donna Tartt’s novel, Fabritius’s painting becomes a symbol of beauty held, then lost, the quest, “the heart-shock of believing for only a moment, that you might just have what could never be yours” (p. 761), what art, music, poetry and fiction invite us to discover, with Theo, that “even the happiest of us . . . [will] lose everything that matters in the end–and yet to know as well, despite all this, as cruelly as the game is stacked, that it’s possible to play it with a kind of joy” (p. 768). The arts and theology assure us of this possibility, supported, not by statistics and ledger sheets, but by the literature and recorded history “of people who have loved beautiful things. . . . Singing out brilliantly from the wreck of time to the next generation of lovers, and the next” (p. 771).

City Light Mission

So, last May, having retired from the University, how could I  know beauty was waiting for me at the City Light Mission–my new friends, both the workers and the patrons, their joyful bond against despair, whether serving or queued-up for the sit-down meal three noondays each week, giving and receiving, what I had forgotten I needed: Lynn asking for prayer requests, calling each raised hand by name, shortening the requests to “Jobs,” “Health Issues,” “An Apartment,” “Rent,” “Chemo,” “A Child Lost,” and always the Cowboys–the Dallas Cowboys. And praises: A Bus Pass, A Friend Recovering, A Child Returned. And the Deacon of the day lifting these petitions and blessings to the Lord. Then Will resuming his jazz improvisations at the out-of-tune piano; Trista, almost inaudible, singing gospel to herself; Clara pointing again at my “Jesus sandals,” laughing, asking where I got them, touching my forearm, the palm of my hand, laughing again, saying she thought this time for sure she’d be healed; and big David shouting in his church voice, “Amen, brother,” pointing to me at my ranch dressing and jalapeños station: “I know you! You’re the salad-dressing guy,” then to make amends, saying, “It’s okay, Bob, we know you,” and I’m the leper cleansed; the cripple told to rise and walk; the man blind from birth, whose sight restored, professes to the interrogating Pharisees: “I don’t know if he [Jesus] is a sinner; I only know that I was blind and now I can see” (John 9: 25-26). Me too.

Anastase Maragos (Cropped)

I mentioned that reading the novel took over a month, almost daily therapy sessions, not what I anticipated when I began on page one, but it’s the closest I’ll come to sweating in a psychiatrist’s office. In my handwritten first draft of this Post, I said I wouldn’t tell you why the novel disturbed me so. I said it’s personal. And I definitely prefer laughter to confessional. If you lose your laugh. . . . I’ll tell you this much (which is very little, but it’s genuine). Theodore Decker reminded me of that kid Adon Fink, everybody’s kid to raise, taken in by every family he chose, every time he showed up on their doorstep–families loud and joyful, no rooms with doors closed, that silence Theo ran from, Adon, too. So, here’s my thanks for The Beautiful, my childhood through high school best friends: Marc who rescued me from teenage desperation; Sylvia . . . ; Rusty and Ronnie; Linda; and my cousin-sister Brenda; and all their mothers. And Katrina, my love, body and soul, for the past forty-eight years. And all those other friends, family; you know who you are. Semper Fi. You are always on my mind.

Максим Степаненко

Works Cited

Fairchild, B. H. The Art of the Lathe: Poems, Alice James Books, 1998.
The Jerusalem Bible. Doubleday & Company, 1966.
Tartt, Donna. The Goldfinch. Little, Brown and Company, 2013.