Saturday, March 19, 2011


March 19, 2011:

In about an hour the moon will be full.

I've finally finished reading Marco Polo and among the many strange stories he tells is his account of the Roc, a giant bird of Eastern mythology capable of lifting an elephant off the ground. In fact Rocs feed off elephants, flying up with them high into the sky and then dropping them on the rocks and picking at the remains. If I remember correctly Sinbad the Sailor flies on the back of one in the Arabian Nights. These stories once circulated throughout the known world, riding on the backs of old classical sources into the Middle Ages and surfacing in Medieval encyclopedias and traveler's accounts like Polo's. The "Boke" of Sir John Mandeville, which I'm reading now, has even more of them. In any case I was reminded of gryphons, which are creatures with the bodies of lions and the heads and wings of eagles, and then of the gryphon's head in the collection of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, in the Greek and Roman section, and how it struck me so many years ago when I first saw it. It's a small bronze head, basically an eagle's head with an open beak, part of the handle for a larger bronze cauldron that no longer survives. What I liked about it so much was the curve of the beak. I had never seen a curve so pure, so clean, and so savage at the same time, and I fell in love with it; I go back to visit it every time I'm there.

And that's the mystery I'm visiting here, these odd experiences that seem to come out of nowhere and attach themselves to us like a kind of fate almost, and we feel then that we have to pursue them wherever they find us. I tried to write a short story about a gryphon and an art dealer and his wife and her lover, who owned one just like the one in the Met--they're not that uncommon-- and how the art dealer in revenge decided to steal the lover's gryphon head while the lover was elsewhere in the apartment making love to the dealer's wife; but it never quite came off. And then there was the women and parrots theme, first encountered in another museum, the Boston Museum of Fine Arts, where there's a Tiepolo--the elder Tiepolo--painting of "Time Revealing Truth," an old art historical subject in which an elderly father Time unveils the naked body of Truth, who is always a woman with a sun shining over her head, thus illustrating the idea that the light of Truth shines everywhere and Truth is always naked. We still use the phrase, the naked truth, although the object itself becomes harder and harder to find.

At the foot of Truth in this painting stood a globe, also an obvious symbol, and then a richly conceived and colored parrot. What, I thought, was the parrot doing there? Apparently it was a symbol of luxury, and of course luxury and Truth can hardly coexist, so the placement is no doubt symbolic. But there it was; the subject intrigued me and once again I became committed to the pursuit of it and found it in paintings elsewhere, in Courbet, in Manet, in Italian Renaissance and Baroque masters; in a postcard collage by the poet John Ashbery; and in magazine ads. Here, surely, was another subject worthy of being fictionalized, and I tried to write a story about this one, too, and failed again. But these things stay with you, something in them attracts you, answers to a question, a theme, running through your mind that you're not even aware of, and so these objects seem meant for you, and you don't know why. Women and parrots. I'm under the impression that it is mostly women who keep parrots. In Courbet's painting a naked woman--definitely not Truth; she's a courtesan--leans back in a bed with her parrot perched on her upheld arm.

Well: my son finds me, he says, "infinitely strange." And I suppose I am, to be so carried away by these encounters; but the mind is a strange place, not too many steps away from the Medieval willingness to believe in very odd things like rocs and gryphons, not to mention ants the size of dogs that dig gold out of the ground with their paws, if what an ant has at the end of its legs are paws. (Let me add that I once met a tracker who claimed to be able to track an ant across a gravel driveway; but that's another story.) It is strange, the mind, and curious; and there is pleasure to be had in tracking experiences like these with works of art through the culture, following a trail to see where it leads. I won't be writing fictional stories about these things, but I am planning an essay on the Stendhal Syndrome, which is the mental "illness" that some people suffer when confronted with works of art, when they faint before them or suffer a catatonic shock. That hasn't happened to me, but I have trembled before them. The common people of ancient Greece used to chain the statues of their gods to the temples, to prevent them from walking away. The mind is strange, weird, full of wonders. There are no gryphons, true, but there have been dinosaurs; and children remain enthralled by them.