Page 38 - WTP VOl. IX #1
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Like Never Before (continued from preceding page)
Fresco on an enlarged scale to ornament the altars of Churches, and to make England, like Italy, respected by respectable men of other countries on account of Art.”
The painting is shocking, especially among the works we had chosen. Here, unlike the ethereal blues and grays of the other selected pieces, the colors are garish, loud, uncouth, the palette in keeping with the content, and the tableaux is all movement and imbalance. The colors and composition made sense to me, as if the painting were saying that there can be no harmony after the crime depicted here, and on the heels of that thought came the realization that the very first death, at least in terms of our mythic understanding, was a murder, a fratricide! Despite its small size, the paint- ing seemed equal to the enormity of that understand- ing, and I sat there reverberating with it. The sun is eclipsed by streaks of dark clouds. It is literally appall- ing. And the impossible happens now. Fire, not water, falls from the sky. Everything is wrong.
I was transfixed and astonished. I couldn’t move. The lesser awe I had been feeling before the other works—mostly that I was in such intimate contact with them, with these one-of-a-kind, original, hand- made images—gave way to something else, some- thing more intense and profound that I couldn’t and still don’t fully understand. I only know that the image, the entire composition, was seared into my mind so that for several nights afterward I couldn’t sleep. If it were music we would call it an earworm. It would not depart. Unlike music it was not a loop in time but a continual full-on confrontation, as if the image were forever hurtling toward me, bear- ing down on me. And like an earworm, to note the occasional respite from it, even gratefully, was to activate it once again.
Cain is stepping out of the grave he had been digging to bury his brother. There is a shovel lying on the ground. There is anguish and horror on his face and he grips his own skull as if to tear it apart. How could I have done this? How could I have thought I might hide it and therefore forget it? Forget my own brother?
What manner of monster am I?
Here, in the figure of Cain, the discovery of the knowledge of good and evil is honed to a bitter sharpness, the knowledge so much more painful than any could have supposed: I am, myself, the agent of evil. I am, myself, the foulness I had feared.
I took up the magnifying glass I’d been provided, but I found I could not bear to look too closely or too long at Cain’s face. The horror there awakened a terror I was loathe to feel.
Looking from the figure of Cain in flight, the fire of his guilt singeing him as he pivots from the grave, to the figures on the right side of the composition, the painting’s alternate title, “The Body of Abel Found
by Adam and Eve” becomes a more apt description
of the scene. In a kind of knot from which Cain will now forever be excluded, on the other side of the unfinished grave, are Adam, Eve, and Abel. Eve bends over Abel’s body, seems to collapse over him, her hair cascading across his corpse in a torrent of the pur- est grief. We can’t see her face. She is hidden in her agony, and perhaps in her awful self-recrimination
as well: her memories of paradise, yes, but also her act, her choice, the antecedent to this tragedy. She who only recently became aware of sequence now encounters consequence.
Adam is stunned, astonished, a rictus of terror, stuck in a moment that will never end, ineffectual, wronged and wrong, paralytic, twisted, broken. He is unique among men because he cannot look to history for a reason for this horror, either to make excuses or to try, for the sake of the future, to understand. It could be that what we call history, and the seeking to find some meaning in it, both begin in this moment. So much begins in this moment, with Abel lying on the hard ground, his head back, his beardless young chin tilted toward the sky.
Adam’s dumbstruck face says that he gets it now, not only what it means to be outside of paradise, but here, on earth, in time. And it is not the sudden fact of death that has undone him—although undone
he is, the last vestiges of any paradisal naïveté are gone from him now—so much as this presence of evil, of fatal discord, of the impossibility, ever again, of peace. His body, still Edenic, perfect, muscled and symmetrical, is in a kind of spasm, depicted in the exact moment of his revelation, every muscle seized, contracted, with his hands turned up at the wrists, bent back as far as they can go, his fingers spread
as far as they can go toward a full expression of his shock. His mouth is open but it’s clear no sound

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