Pavane pour Emile

What is art? An artist who does not wrestle with this question has yet to be born as an artist, and one who has stopped, has died. A ceaseless search for the truth. Each poem a reflection, each painting a mirror, all held up to man, so that he might see his own face. Tonight, that mirror was held before my very own face. 

I looked out of my window into the night sky, and the moon blinded me. I felt excellent. It was finally complete, I was complete. What would I see when I looked at it? Every stroke I made with these two hands. It has been 3 years, 2 months and 7 days since I started it, and not a single stroke could I forget.

It started on the day I returned to Yale. It was not in a traditional art class that I found my inspiration, but rather in a philosophy class. In my theory of aesthetics class, we’d been looking at the relationship between morality and art. We discussed what writers and philosophers, such as Tolstoy, Gardner, Gass and Devereaux, have had to say about it. Tolstoy and Gardner were the moralists; they argued that good art was art that served to teach and instill moral values. For them, art was moral expression; through art we tackled and resolved moral conundrums. It was on these grounds that my professor, Dr. Draychus, started a dialogue on the artist Balthus. Feeding us a slideshow of Balthus’s work, he posed a question to us: was there something morally wrong with his works, and if so, did this affect their quality as works of art?

The controversy of Balthus’s paintings, was that at the heart of each of them, was a nude, underaged girl. Nevertheless, they had a dreamlike quality, and when your eyes met them you fell into a mild stupor. Gardner would deny this Beauty, finding its immorality to stand in the way, as would my classmates. But I, the artist and seeker of truth among them, found refuge in the words of Gass, “Goodness knows nothing of Beauty,” so morality proved no barrier for my appreciation. At least, that’s how it was at first, but a single painting changed all of this. While clicking through the slideshow, my professor stopped at the painting, Aufstehen. So innocent, so pure, so forbidden, and so beautiful, it stopped my heart. Her hair was soft and brown, her features so pure… her form so angelic. The rapture herself! She played with a toy bird as she lay on her bed, being peered at by a cat, appearing on the scene as if something from a dream.  Perhaps Gass wasn’t wrong about goodness, but evil had much to say about Beauty. Of all the theories discussed in that class, the correct one was never mentioned: it was the immorality in a work of art that allowed it to be beautiful. 

What I realized in the moment of seeing Aufstehen, that all my peers missed, was that the dreamlike quality of Balthus’s work didn’t exist in spite of its morally questionable portrayal of young girls, but because of it. Removing the young girls from his art and expecting it to keep its aesthetic value would be like removing the caffeine from coffee and expecting it to give the same rush of energy. What the artist sought wasn’t imitation like Plato would suggest, what the artist sought was something more real than reality. The artist sought at the forbidden that lie behind veils. Art was a great unveiling. It was the unseen caffeine in coffee brought to the forefront. 

That day I painted my first stroke. I tasted fear, and I tasted desire. An artist could never put out there, what wasn’t in here. Sin was a necessary component of good art, so it was also necessary for good artists. That first stroke, I could’ve never made until the day Balthus awoke me from my slumber. Just like I couldn’t make the final stroke without doing the deed.

I began with Balthus, but the bridge to Beauty was paved with depravity after depravity that would make Balthus look the saint. Next, I would find myself studying Milton’s epic poem, Paradise Lost. Not a depraved work by any means, but the role of Satan as a sympathizable, perhaps even protagonistic character drew me in. Perhaps Milton did not intend him to be the hero of the story, but for my reading he was. Prideful and courageous, capable of defying the world itself without wincing a pinch at eternal damnation. One who would not be shackled by fear, by morals, and who was only limited by the asymptotes of his own process of overcoming. He was the Nietzschean hero in every right. It was not God, nor Adam nor Eve, that made Paradise Lost a story worth reading, but Satan. Just as it was not the good that made art beautiful, but the perverse and the forbidden. Another stroke and another stroke would be added to my work.

Gaining the confidence now to delve further, I picked up the poems of Aleister Crowley, and a study of his philosophy as well as his rituals. I studied serial killers and their patterns, watched their interviews. I listened to the blackest and deathliest metal I could find. For some this might’ve represented a youthful goth phase, long to be forgotten shortly after, but for me, the serious artist and intellectual, this was but research. I traversed immorality, sinking into its deepest corners, all for the sake of Beauty. Stroke after stroke after stroke, but I could not cross the bridge with research alone. I needed to not only look at the world that existed beyond the horizon of morality, I had to walk beyond it.

What I sought was not the shallow for show immorality of black metal, nor the barely aesthetic immorality of Satanist and serial killers, nor the restraint that held the hands of great artists like Balthus and Milton. With the fervor with which Faust sought for knowledge, I sought for a Beauty no less than his enlightenment, even if like him it meant I had to sell my soul to the starved hounds of hell. On the bridge paved with the bodies of artist and immoralist alike, it was I who was tasked with the final stepping over.

“Is everything alright, Emile,” asked my professor. I struggled to open my eyes, and light broke through the darkness. Triangles, squares, circles, and unshaped colors covered my range of vision. “Emile?” he said again. 

“Oh…” I said, as the white, black and beige blurs started to take the shape of a face. “Oh, Dr. Celine.”

“Yes, I asked if everything was alright, Emile?”

“Yes, yes, everything is quite alright, professor,” I said, raising slightly from my chair, but sitting back down as I found myself to be of light head.

“Well then, I’ll be frank with you Emile. Last year, when you took my course on modernist art, I was quite impressed with your work.”

“Oh, I’m sure you kid, professor,” I said, looking around his office and taking in the blurry works of art held by its white walls.

“I do not, and that’s why I’ve called you here today. It’s a shame, truly, so much promise, and yet you won’t complete a single assignment. And you say that nothing is wrong? I don’t understand.”  What happened next, I couldn’t remember, just that I had the vague notion that he was not the only professor to make these observations.

It was not just my professors, but my friends as well, and eventually my family. I had no time for their trifles, I had to commit to my research. For every stroke there were days of labor, and what seemed, years of evolution. They all said they were concerned, some left me messages even weeks after I’d stopped responding. They didn't understand. No one understood, no one but me and those that came before. After the first year, I’d lost most of my contacts, and ceased going to my classes completely. The first year was easy, the second harder, and nothing could prepare me for the third and what came after. Even then I knew it would be this way, I knew that my work required a deed to be finalized, a deed more wicked than any I’d studied. The obsessions of the first year were but the honeymoon, while the deed would be the culmination of every struggle, every desire, every insight, every stroke, all into one great act of evil. One pandemonium of release! 

I stared at the white wall of my apartment, then back at my canvas, finally I rested it on the beige patterns of the floor. After staring some immeasurable time, lost in those bleak beige patterns, a whim turned my eyes to the window. I saw the snow falling, ah, it must’ve been winter. It was white and barren, both the winter and my mind. Unlike the spring of my awakening that produced stroke after stroke, I found myself frozen during its winter, unable to will myself to shower or comb my hair or walk or read or think or understand, just as I was unable to paint. I’d reached a deadlock. 

My admittance to Yale was under review, so I was not allowed to take any classes. Furthermore, I had to explain this to my parents, whose names I could now only recall when it was convenient. The whole of my winter was spent in my bed, only leaving it when I had to. Either for food, or to call home to my parents and convince them to keep sending money. All I did was necessary. I suffered no enjoyments, no studies, no arts, no pleasures of any kind, my soul would not permit it. Tangled up in an unsolvable equation, I could not move no matter how sincerely I fought it’s webs. 

My mind remembered the year before, the pleasures I felt at each new enlightenment, and at each stroke that corresponded. My mind remembered the novelty of my newly found obsession, and the boundlessness of my search for truth and Beauty. It was as if I stood before the fountain of all true and beautiful, able to drink of it if only I desired. Well my fountain had run dry, and I stuck out my tongue, still waiting for its water. At first at least, but by the end of winter, my barren hope had gone to be replaced by despair. The spring that followed was one that came only to nature, the ice that froze my mind had only grown colder.

By this point it’d now been nearly two full years since I’d started my quest, and as the second year was coming to a close, I’d still yet to make a single stroke, or even divine what would be needed to let me. I’d stood at a crossroads. Like the lover who once found their love to be so overflowing and easy but was now caved within the very cavern of the love they once adored. The lover could try and escape the cavern, their love now finding itself to be difficult, or they could devote themselves to the labors of loving, be it winter or spring. Would I leave my love for ease, or devote and marry myself to Beauty? The former was easier, more pleasant in every way, but the latter held in it something beyond pleasure, beyond ease and beyond even happiness. The lover who commits himself to the event of love, never straying when it dulls, hardens, or chills, at the expense of his ease gains for it the Eternal. That was the difference between the dalliances, destined to waste away, and the Eternal Love that never dies.

Would I give up because I could not find a single stroke in nearly a year? Would I give up because my obsession that once gave me life paralyzed my very soul? Because it shone like a star, making me lose sight of all else, and now was the source of my torment? Because I could not stretch, blink, or breathe without thinking of it and being reminded of my paralysis? Would I choose ease, or would I seek the Eternal? To give up, at times it began to feel so easy, so natural, but to divert my eyes from my awakening would be the death of me as an artist. Paralyzed, and lulled to death by its ease, would that become of me? 

It was in search of an answer to this question that I sought the counsel of an old friend. No one understood, but myself. But it was her, her who understood me better than myself. 

“What’s with you? You don’t speak to me for nearly two years, and now you wanna get coffee?” I glanced around the table, taking in the dull browns and blacks of the cafe. It was called The Black Afternoon. The lighting was low. Not a bad theme, but it was too simplistic. Not enough shades of black, not enough shades of brown, not enough variety. 

“Are you listening? There you go again, staring off into space like always… oh what am I gonna do with you Emi?”

“Uniformity amidst variety, do you remember which philosopher coined that phrase?”

“Hutcheson, remember, it was you who kept blabbering about all that nonsense when you took that aesthetic theory class or whatever it was.”

“You remembered,” I said, a small smile appearing. If it had to do with me, she always remembered. 

“Yeah… I missed you a lot you know…”

“I need your help.”

“Huh? Is something wrong.”

“Very,” I said, as a waiter handed us our coffees, his apron was brown, and the shirt underneath was black. Simple. 

“What is it?” I finally took a chance to look at her. She wore a rose-pink shirt with a daffodil where her chest was. Her white kitten purse was a bit more interesting, at its center was a black dot for a nose and black lines for whiskers. What really brought it out was the background, there amidst a white night, colors shone like stars. My eyes met her hazel eyes and made their way around her pale face and the icy blonde curls of her hair. Very close… but not quite, immensely agreeable, but not beautiful. The agreeable and the Beautiful were like earth and heaven, even the most profound earthly pleasure could never compare to the faintest heavenly bliss. “Emi?”

“Ah, sorry, I was thinking about that shirt.”

“Oh, you mean mine? Still so absentminded huh? You know what this shirt reminds me of?” Agreeable times, agreeable times I’m sure. “Of that time I made you stay up all night and watch cartoons with me, it was the first time I wore this shirt… knew you’d find it cute, and that you’d just find me adorable sitting there in my little daffodil shirt watching Curious George.” 

“You were… you are adorable, Sofie.”

“Emi… I missed you so much, how could you?” She said as her face creased. She was always so agreeable when sad… sometimes beautiful. 

“I had no choice.”

“Your work? But you still could’ve stayed, you could’ve texted me and we didn’t have to hang out all the time like we used to, I could’ve given you space and we could’ve we could’ve we could’ve…”

“I had no choice.”

“Do you still love me?”

“I love Art.”

“I know Emi, I know. The way you look when you’re painting… the innocence of a child in your smile, I never made you that way… sometimes I think that’s why I love you so much, that look on your face while you’re painting, that one look.”

“Sofie, I need your help.” Beautiful, so beautiful, that look of anguish, the piercing Dionysian Real disrupting the Apollonic harmony she held. In the moment of her grief, she transcended. When she looked like this, I loved her too. I ran my hand through her curls and smiled, “Sofie, I need you to give me back my smile.”

My next memory was of discovering myself on the sofa of her living room drinking tea.

“What day is it?” I asked. I took in the aroma of tea as I looked at the white walls, the beige carpet of the floor, and the gray doors. Just when I thought her apartment would lull me to sleep it forced itself into my spirit, Le Danse. It was plastered above the tv and to the left of it, terrible placement. Le Danse, Le Danse, Le Danse! The pagan glory of the nude forms dancing and holding hands, it gave meaning to the arrangement of whites and grays that it found itself within. 

“Oh, it’s Saturday, April 23rd, why? By the way, do you like the tea I made? I made it just the way you like, jasmine tea with the slightest drops of lemon.”

“Le Danse, you like it?”

“Haha, well you always spoke on and on about the ‘Great Henri Matisse,’ so I figured you’d like it.” Of course, not an aesthetic bone in the poor girl’s body, at least she learned to imitate my good taste. I have perhaps never met a more agreeable woman in my life. I looked over into the kitchen at her, at her mint green apron, at the rose in its center, at the blush pink shirt beneath it, and the flamingo pink skirt patterned with black dots below it. Never a woman more agreeable.

“Dinner’s ready,” she said, after a long silence. I looked at each kernel of fried rice, at each sliced bit of green onion, at each of the thin pieces of ginger and the way they all arranged. “Is fried rice still one of your favorite meals? I couldn’t choose between it and lasagna; I didn’t know which you’d like the best.” I began to eat, fried rice was my favorite, more specifically, her fried rice. “This reminds me of how I used to always order for you when we went to restaurants, you trusted me because I knew your taste even better than you did, hehe.” I ate some more. 

She put her bowl down on the table. The table was black and wooden. After eating for a while, I turned to examine the sofa, it was boring and brown, just like every other grey, white, black or brown of her apartment. Something was out of place though, ah, she wasn’t there anymore.  I ate some more.

“Hey Emi, sorry bout that, just wanted to get more comfy,” she said. She was now in a pink butterfly onesie, purple wings hung on its back and the black buttons that kept it together made it quite appealing. “Will you watch cartoons with me?” 

“Cartoons? Hmm?”

“Emi, please, will you watch them with me?”

“Well, I don’t know…”

“Please Emi, please, can we watch Winx Club together, I promise to keep being good,” she said, making her best puppy dog face. So very agreeable.

“Alright… I’ll watch it with you, but only because you’ve behaved so well today, making my favorite dish like that,” I said to her, petting her head as her face lit up. After we finished eating, she fell snug into my arms and I held her as we watched the trite garbage that passed for tv known as the Winx Club. I remembered all the other nights like this with her, how I’d call her my little princess, how beautiful it was when she cried, how agreeable she was, how good my little princess was. That was a pleasant time in my life, pleasant times were something I’d forsaken for nearly 2 years. Was it worth it? Would I sacrifice this once again just to keep the slightest chance at achieving Beauty alive? I did come to her for an answer after all, is this pleasant feeling my answer?

“Your little princess feels so safe when her daddy holds her.” I bent down and kissed her head.

“Daddy’s gonna keep his little princess safe and sound, alright?” This pleasantness broke my spell, calling her my little princess again, when just a moment ago she was worthless to me, all was worthless except my work. A pleasant death… Sofie’s pleasant house or Balthus’s Eternal Chateau? No, I mustn’t give up so soon, love was not just a shining light on a warm spring day, it was that which survived the coldest winters, if only you had the faith to persevere. I stood on the cusp of surrendering to ease and pleasantry, to my little princess, to the guaranteed agreeable. Beauty, why hast thou forsaken me!?

“S-Sofie?”

“Louise, I told you to stay in your room while I had company over today, I told you to never leave, to never leave it. What are you doing here?” said Sofie. I averted my eyes from Sofie and looked up at the girl called Louise.  I am the resurrection and the life. The one who believes in me will live, even though they die; and whoever lives by believing in me will never die. Do you believe this? John 11:25-26 Beauty has not forsaken me, crucified on a cross of pleasantry, my love has revived me so that I may live in the eternity of Beauty. A poem or perhaps a psalm appeared before my mind:

My daemon child who be so queer and fair
My moonlit sonata who echoes near
My reverie do lie inside your hair
Whose tufts spin curls upon the lunar year
Your hour, in that eternal moon reside
Who patron’s nymphs and fauns and fae alike
But none as you, dear Beauty oft denied
For within hand you hold that Eden’s psych
So lost between our birth and elder days
The Balthusian delight that burned the bush
Who bid me kneel and to new sins give praise
Oh seraph’s light who from above gives push
    Do moan the call to break the chains of law
    And plunge within forbidden seas of awe!

Sofie, except she was so young, so forbidden, the ripe fruit of our paradise lost. 

“Oh… you’re smiling,” said Sofie, watching me. I awoke from my reverie when Louise began to walk away.

“Wait, Louise, right?”

“Sofie, why is he staring at me like that?”

“Louise! Emi I’m so sorry you have to tole--”

“Le Danse, do you know it?” I said. She looked at me with curiosity, retreating back into the hall. My eyes followed her, my resurrection, the Dionysian angel who revealed to me the kingdom of heaven. 

“What did you come here for?” said Sofie.

“I’m sorry… I just wanted to know if you had dinner ready,” sung the virgin of my reveries. 

“Alright, just go on back to your room, I’ll bring dinner in a bit.” She walked, she waltzed, she fluttered, she flew, she giggled, she wiggled, back to her tree of knowledge, oh forbidden fruit. 

The minutes, the days, the hours, the seconds, oh how they flew by, like trees on a forest drive. The end was all I wanted, all that I dreamt. So near, the fears, the tears, so clear, so close, right here. The sound and fury of heaven I hear! Stroke, stroke, stroke, ahhhh, stroke after stroke after stroke, I wept, I broke, ohhh each stroke. The colors, the lights, the words, the memories, like trees on a forest drive, like trees they all flew by. 

“Mom died, mom died, mom died,” oh how grateful I am to thee, ye reaper who have brought the virgin to me. “I’ve taken care of her since.” Oh how you forget your role, oh sister of the angel who saved my soul. Though lusted for by thieves, now my smile never leaves. “Oh how I wept.” Oh how I leapt! “Since it I have never slept, and it was on the year my PhD thesis was due.” Oh antithesis and synthesis, transcendent virgin, wrought by a cruel angel. Blue and cold, Red and hot, death and birth, forged my work so true. My femme fatale, my magnum opus, my kosmos, my celestial star, my dream, my heaven, how they died to birth my thesis, so cruel.  So lucid was my memory, so fluid was my reverie. A single memory, Pavane pour une infante défunte, Le Danse, Le Danse. 

“I’ll stay here, for you Sofie,” a truth set free, a lie, a pretense. That beautiful face, that anguish, a smile on my face, your tragedy.  Pavane pour une infante défunte, no one dances for Sofie, cursed by Emile. Le Danse pour une chère petite infante.  Pavane pour deux princesses défunte. My fragile soul, torn apart, by the Beauty of this wondrous night. My morning star penetrates the dark heaven, a prism of 7 colors lights my path, the journey of the artist. La conquête.

I saw my face in the mirror of the moon, it blinded me. Soon too soon, I averted my gaze, too soon. I swooned, I fawned, I gasped, I grasped, but could not touch. I touched but could not gaze upon the flower that I grazed. I gazed oh I did! I gazed, I gazed upon la peinture, but not la princesse. Oh how I gazed! Oh I braved to gaze upon my morning star. Oh how I raced, oh how I chased, but could not place my eyes upon the fruit I did taste. Upon la princesse, upon my rapture, my inferno, my reverie, my nightmare! My Divine Comedy! La conquête! 

I gazed upon the day of judgement, upon the rapture, the ruin of my very soul, all within her empty eyes. If our souls have trembled like a harp string just once all eternity was affirmed. Oh Nietzsche, how the soul of your child trembles. My knees fell to the ground as if in repentance, the flood broke forth from my eyes. 

Pavane for a Dead Princess.

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