I went down to New York City to see my brother, and after breakfast we went to the Metropolitan Museum of Art. He went off to one of their new exhibits. What do I do at the Met? I go straight to Room 630, the Rembrandt Room, and sit with Rembrandt.
Behind us are paintings by Vermeer, not to mention two clusters of viewers, each led by excited, madly-gesticulating guides, one speaking in Russian and one in Japanese. I sit on a comfortable bench and look at Aristotle Gazing At a Bust of Homer (I do my Eve Gazing At a Painting by Rembrandt), and at the Woman With Pink.
With Pink refers to a pink carnation that’s in her hand. So many people say that men shouldn’t write about women since they can’t possibly understand them, that whites shouldn’t write about people of color, that no one should write about Native Americans except Native Americans. I still remember the hoopla when William Styron wrote Sophie’s Choice and many Jews, led by Eli Wiesel, reprimanded him, a Southern Christian, for writing about the Jewish Holocaust.
But here’s Rembrandt painting in billowy detail a woman with long, precious earrings, bracelets around her wrists, the many beads around her head with the exquisite, tiny locket over her forehead, the gorgeous folds of her incarnadine dress, obviously from a rich family—and what is she thinking? What is she feeling? What’s in her eyes? Is she sad, a girl weighed down by dress and jewelry?
He sees everything, paints Aristotle looking at the humble bust of Homer. The philosopher, too, wears sumptuous black clothes with a special belt of gorgeous stones given him by a statesman or king, but what does his face say to the small, white head of stone? You said it all, didn’t you? I may be famous, I’m feted and honored, admired the world over, but you, teller of tales, said it all. You were blind, wandered from place to place, and earned a meal and occasional shelter by telling stories of a man who left his wife and family for glorious war and then couldn’t find his way home. All my philosophy is as nothing to your tales.
He catches them all—and especially himself in those great self-portraits—at a time of apprehension and frailty, of seeing their true proportions in the turning wheel. Those moments don’t just belong to them, they belong to me, too; it’s not in silk and diamonds that I find my kinship with others but in doubt, and the step that wavers before going on.