Richard’s clay sculptures could say a great deal about him. Luckily, he did not sculpt very often. He spent most of his time bagging groceries at the supermarket. But once in a blue moon, after coming home from work, he would have an “artistic moment” and crawl down to the basement of the two-story house that he rented with a close female friend of his. There he would pull out the wet clay that he kept stacked in plastic tubs, and produce “sculpture” until all hours of the night. Although he complained about his job and his “compromised abilities” to anyone who would listen, when he was in a generous mood and “trying to be honest with himself” Richard could admit that he had set things up exactly the way he wanted them.
Richard’s friend was named Liz. They lived on separate levels of one house—he on the first floor, she on the second—and shared the kitchen. Liz worked for an insurance agency. They were the same age and had been close ever since they met when they were eighteen and had a mad fling, which culminated with Richard proposing marriage, an offer which she had politely refused and which he later retracted and often, when he was drunk, denied ever making. They moved in together because, as Richard put it, they “didn’t have to worry about romance rearing its ugly head and spoiling things.” Nevertheless there remained a strange gulf in their relationship. Richard harbored some species of bitterness about Liz’s career, which manifested itself in an unbridled hostility at the mere mention of money regardless of tone or context.
For her part, Liz could not make rhyme or reason of the wild opinions that Richard expressed about his vocation, and the almost morbid secrecy he displayed about what he was up to—that is, what he was literally “doing.” He would not allow her into the basement, which he kept locked, and would preach to her in vague generalities about his convictions and “principles,” which never made any sense whatsoever. One evening, for instance, Liz learned that Richard was taking a course at the local community college. They were in the living room watching the news. She asked him if it was an art class. He kept his eyes glued to the television and told her no, because, “in the first place,” an artist in art class is like a “monster in a museum,” which would sooner destroy than create. He did not provide any second point. When Liz asked what the subject was, he said History, and when she asked if it was Art History he lost his temper. He said there are two facets of an artist’s life, one public and one private. He said that an artist must render his public self invisible, while simultaneously his private life must parade on the street like an emperor without clothes; he must masturbate in public like a cynic. He said that an artist’s personality is “untouchable and sacred,” while his social life and relationships are “not worth anything,” and that studying History was merely a preventative measure, necessary on account of his “instinctive” desire to “face society and defeat reality,” as if destroying them in battle. He wanted to “explode cultural fictions” and “foreground his own existence.”
Regardless of his rhetoric, however, the importance of this “history class” soon became evident in an altogether different way. Richard had gone out of his mind over a girl named Emily Parker who sat beside him in class. She was probably nineteen. It was three weeks before Christmas. He had never spoken to her, but he was making a series of clay sculptures entitled “Emily’s Subjective Privacy.” Her last name was Parker, but Richard felt that it was not essential to her identity. The series would be six pieces because that was the number of weeks he had sat next to Emily before realizing that he loved her. He had produced more “sculpture” in the last week, after falling in love, than he had in the preceding twelve months. He now understood what composers were talking about when they described “artistic swoons” and other sorts of mysticism. Richard was in the midst of a creative euphoria: everything he looked at was awash in the light of “full understanding,” and he could feel many causes and effects simultaneously and vicariously. This resulted in his behaving somewhat differently. Instead of taking notes during History class, for instance, he would spend his time “contemplating reality” and “formulating truth” into aphorisms, which he wrote down, such as “to participate in actuality is to enact a communion, and therefore joy itself. Therefore every joy is an actuality.”
His behavior at home also changed. He was so preoccupied with the art of love that he no longer had time for anything else. He became more secretive about “what he was doing” and would not tell Liz anything that happened, as if each mundane detail of his life was sacred and above examination. When he came home from the supermarket on Wednesday, Liz tried to make small talk and even brought up the fact that she was due for another raise at the office. This drew no reaction. So she asked him an innocent question about what sort of “style” he was sculpting in nowadays. Richard began to mutter that this question was irrelevant, and “not even possible” when discussing art.
“Isolating ‘style’ is an asinine habit,” he said. “It’s cultural stupidity, it’s historical prejudice. ‘Realism’ and ‘impressionism’ have no meaning. Historians introduce the content of one’s background, the structure of one’s ‘upbringing,’ a history of one’s ‘actions,’ in order to create a context, to provide a ‘character’ behind what a person seems to be. That is unnecessary and misleading; I ‘know’ someone in an inverse proportion to the amount of factual knowledge I have about their so-called ‘past life.’ There is no past life and there is no context. There is no history. There is only a present, which was always there, being ignored all along, and now it is here.”
Despite Richard’s declaration of immunity to traditional labels, however, “Emily’s Subjective Privacy” could only be described as abstract and “impressionistic.” There is no way it could be called “realistic,” but Richard would have angrily opposed the suggestion that it was akin to abstract expression. “This wok goes beyond ‘representational versus nonrepresentational,’ he would have said, it he had bothered talking to anyone about his sculptures. He created them by means of an “undirected unconscious method” in which each piece emerged as a byproduct of the phenomenon of “transformation” that occurred as he “engaged” the clay and allowed it to interact with existence and to “participate in the joy and actuality of his being” when this being was endowed with infatuation and “reality.” This artistic state was the outcome of a necessarily vague and “spontaneous” process, which by definition could not be properly described.
Friday was a big day for Richard because he was about to finish the last piece of “Emily’s Subjective Privacy.” He called in sick to work and spent the entire day in the basement, with his hands and face covered in clay. At seven-thirty in the evening “Emily’s Subjective Privacy” was finally finished. Richard’s demeanor changed immediately: his intense “fighting” or “dancing” with the clay abruptly halted, and he stared at this new object with wide eyes. He lifted the little board on which the clay figure sat and placed it in its proper place, at the end of a string of objects in various states of suspended animation. It exhibited the signs of an imminent collapse. Richard stood dumbly for a while, simply staring. It was impossible to picture something until it was already made. And as soon as it was finished, every creation was simply one more toy lying on the floor in the living room of the natural world. Now, finally, Richard understood what should have been obvious to him long ago: creation is blind and unaware of itself. It is only a crude groping, a gesture of raw nature with no sense of proportion. Certainly the pieces of “Emily’s Subjective Privacy” were “curious,” to say the least, and perhaps even “suggestive” in a certain way of something or other. The main impression they made was that of movement: the sculptures seemed to consist of literal flourishes, and to capture the points of inception of gestures, poses, and a sort of quasi-dynamic “winking and trembling.” It was a small miracle, similar to the knack some people have for “silent blubbering,” which is something you cannot ignore even if you close your eyes.
Finally a new thought occurred to Richard, which brought about the question: “What are you doing?” But this realization was only fleeting, and was soon “scattered on the wind.” Richard knew there was a storm brewing inside him. The next step, of course, was to say something to Emily Parker. Something “important” had happened, and Richard knew that he was the one responsible for telling her—it fell on his shoulders to act as his own messenger. He had somehow convinced himself—without quite realizing it—that “Emily’s Subjective Privacy” was a magnetic symbol, a powerful “token” with unique powers, and that Emily was going to pin this “decoration” on the front of her blouse, so to speak, next to her heart. A heart can only implore, beg and beseech—even the heart of a Napoleon or Stalin, whose withering glances send men shrinking to their graves. Richard could remember hearing the voice of a heart making demands when it ought to implore: a desperate voice, feeble and enraged, giving its last gasp. He considered whether his own breath would stop before his heart quit beating, and what it might feel like to know that your blood had finally fallen quiet for the first and last time, and that the “end” was coming.
Richard turned and walked up the deep gloom of the basement stairs, rubbing his hands together. He could not brush off the idea that he had, unbeknownst to his own mind, been “making an account of himself” for the past six weeks of his life. Although he had kept his past in the basement, he was still doing his level best to remake or perhaps “fabricate” a history for himself. By “working over” his past moments continuously, ad nauseam, he was able to abdicate the present, leaving it to be shaped wholly by “mere chance and the elements,” along with a convenient sort of superstition about patterns of Providence and the circumstantial workings of “fatality.” And finally he would choose, one fine day, to gather up these “images,” stick them in a firing-oven, and bake them until they underwent a chemical transformation and became something else, a thing caught and captured and stuffed, condemned to remain always in that state and never again “become something else.”
Richard walked into the kitchen and found Liz at the counter, decorating gingerbread cookies in the shape of little round-armed men. Outside, snow was drifting down against the window. Liz looked at him.
“Would you like to taste one?” she asked.
Richard looked at the little pastry men with their white, frosted smiles and blank chocolate-chip stares.
“God, you’re archaic,” he said, and took the cordless phone off the wall and went back into the basement.
There Richard stood in the midst of his sculptures, glaring and staring. His face was sweating and a residue of clay stung his eyes. He reached into the chest pocket of his canvas “sculpting apron” and pulled out several folded papers. They were scraps, doodlings, and stupid notes. He certainly did not have Emily Parker’s phone number. If he did he would have dialed quickly, before there was time to stop and think and change his mind. Instead he stared for several long seconds at his own useless hands and made a number of realizations in rapid succession. He realized that History class would end the following week, that he was going to fail the final exam, and that he would never tell Emily Parker that he loved her. There was no one he could call to get a hold of her. This truth, the only truth for him, was real, but it somehow had nothing to do with reality. He believed in their “subjective privacy,” all the while knowing, beyond any doubt, that love was a relation and that nothing related them. He knew that love was a “pure potential” that was struggling to breathe the cold air of actuality. It was real, but it did not exist.
Richard closed his eyes. They still hurt. Ow, he thought. Damn this clay. He hardly noticed what was happening anymore, because his mind was too busy “making inferences.” He stood for a while with the phone in one hand, clicking the call button on and off so that the dial tone came and went like a train passing through tunnels. He shut it off, finally, and “hammered” the phone head-first against the cement wall until it broke apart. He clenched his fists. What else could be done? He looked at “Emily’s Subjective Privacy” on the drying rack. The entire basis of his recent “prolific creativity” was a complete fiction.
The noise of the phone breaking on the wall caught Liz’s attention immediately, of course. She looked up from her gingerbread. Then she opened the basement door and headed down the steps, regardless of Richard’s warnings about entering the basement and violating his “sacred privacy.” Near the bottom of the stairs she halted, finding Richard in a state of absolute frenzy. He was throwing pieces of ceramic in all directions and slapping his own face.
“Richard!” she yelled. “What the hell are you doing?”
He stopped and noticed her. He dropped one of his sculptures and grinned, panting like a wild animal.
“Me?” he said. “That’s easy: I’m giving up for the last time.”
Liz said, “What do you mean, giving up?”
“What the hell do you think it means?” Richard yelled. “It means exactly what it says. I quit! I’m not going to try anymore.”
“You shouldn’t be discouraged,” she said. “You make lovely things.”
“Yes, lovely,” he said. “This is psychological trash and I hope it never sees the light of day. It’s an abomination to everyone and everything. But it was the product of real hope, I promise you that. I believed in inspiration! I cannot pretend I didn’t. I poured out the seeds of my heart on a literal wasteland. I planted dead bones and broken ribs here as God’s honest truth, or at least as half-truths. Now everything I’ve done is finished, it is nothing but shit and rotten apples and clay…”
Richard went on like this for a while, but eventually his “existential indignation” succumbed to Liz’s persistent concern and broad efforts to cheer him up. It seemed that her good will was no less stubborn than his self-righteous despair. She dragged him upstairs and installed him beside her on the sofa. His avalanche of vague accusations against the universe petered out; he fell silent and sat listening to her like a child hearing its favorite bedtime story. By the end of the night he was almost clinging to her, hanging on every word. She told Richard that “everything would be okay,” and even convinced him to go with her to a holiday party the next day—even as he continued to insist that he was a “lost soul” who could scarcely make it through the night, much less “conduct social calls” with her in the strange world of regular people. Eventually she let him lay on the couch and rest his head in her lap.
On Saturday Richard went with Liz to the “holiday party.” He was subdued and pensive, “waiting on” the embarrassment and “disgrace” that he fully believed was lying in wait for him and would inevitably appear and converge on his person like a swarm of bees, “inundating and obliterating whatever had been there before.” He was no longer irritable, but dreadfully nervous about what sort of terrible “appearance” he would make. He was petrified with fear and eager to please. Liz had encouraged him to bring some artwork, so he was carrying his smallest surviving sculpture in the front pocket of his blazer. Liz brought her plate of gingerbread cookies.
The party was full of graduate students and young professionals—all of the people Richard’s age with whom he had nothing in common. Liz became friendly and relaxed, but Richard turned into a grimacing shadow. He was distracted and unpleasant; even as he worried nonstop about “being pleasant” at all costs. He also became ridiculously ingratiating and deferential. For an hour he simply followed Liz around, living in her wake. He was like a man in the water with no idea how to swim. Eventually Richard realized that inside Liz there was some motor with countless wires and meshing gears, which he could not assemble from mere observation. He could not reproduce it by external signs. Richard knew that he was looking at things backwards, that his mind was full of holes, that a gigantic blind spot lay precisely where he was trying to navigate. He was going to die at this party and there was no possible strategy for survival. Everyone else seemed to have sparkling eyes and live on grapes and honey, with a dozen survival strategies ready on the tips of their tongues and the ends of their fingers. The person swims who knows he can swim. Meanwhile the person who knows he cannot swim is bound to sink. At a certain point Richard lost the nerve to even make an effort and simply stood staring into space like a dead fish. His legs grew tired and he sat down on an empty sofa. He was “resigning” again, and each time it was “for once and all.” Although he made no such announcement, once again he could have said: “this is me, giving up.”
On the couch the minutes passed slowly. Richard imagined that he was sitting in a graveyard among many nameless tombstones. He felt a dismal peace. Every person was a piece of granite. He took the sculpture from his pocket, so that he could take turns staring at people and then at the little piece of ceramic, in case people began staring back. There was random laughter around him and random drunken stunts, such as removing articles of clothing and dropping them out an open window. The people seemed to be swirling together in a big cloud, sharing the same weather. The cloud occasionally drifted close to Richard like a tongue of fog. Someone stepped up to him and pressed a glass of whiskey into his hand, so he drank it. Later a girl plopped down beside him on the sofa. She had dark hair and black eyeglasses. She held a glass of wine in each hand, one white and one red. Richard looked at her like a zoo animal with its nose against the cage.
“I like your paperweight,” the girl said. She sipped the white wine. She held up the red wine. “I’m holding this for someone in the bathroom,” she said.
“Ah…” Richard said. He held up his sculpture. He looked at it, then at her. She was waiting for some declaration. “Um, do you like this? Why?” he asked, and before she could reply he continued talking. “I don’t like it,” he said. “It’s not useful. It doesn’t work. It can’t even stand upright.” To illustrate, he set it on the girl’s leg near the hem of her skirt, and it fell on the floor.
“Oops,” she said. “It fell down.”
“Sorry,” he said. “Like Saddam… Like London Bridge.”
“Like the leaning tower of Pisa,” the girl said.
“No,” Richard said. “Not like the tower of Pisa. The tower of Pisa is merely ‘leaning.’ It is not going to fall. After a certain amount of time it may even reverse directions, and lean the other way. It is merely ‘rocking.’”
The girl laughed. “What do you do?” she asked.
“You know what?” Richard said. “I don’t do much of anything. Not in this world. I’m an artist.”
She smiled. “Could you do my portrait?” she asked.
Richard frowned. “It wouldn’t work,” he said. “Everyone wants Mona Lisa eyes. Everyone wants her smile. But your glasses would make a glare on the canvas.” He made a vague painting motion with his right hand.
The girl laughed again. “I could take them off.”
“Then you wouldn’t be able to see me,” he said. “Your face would be blurry. No one would recognize you.”
“But I can see without these,” the girl said. “I’m just farsighted. I can hardly read a menu.” She put down one wine glass and took her eyeglasses off with her free hand. Her bare eyes looked suddenly vulnerable.
“If you were farsighted,” Richard said, “then what are you doing here? Why are you wasting your time in a place like this?” He gestured around them at the party in general. The girl shrugged, and put her glasses back on. She drank the last of the white wine.
“Did you drive here?” she asked.
Richard paused, trying to understand. “No,” he said.
The girl smiled again. “Then no one is counting on you,” she said. “I drove myself. I like art. Do you want to come home with me and watch a movie?”
For Richard this was too bizarre to be a dream, but it couldn’t be real. He had the uncanny feeling that, no matter what he said, it would make sense at this moment but not before or after.
“You’re Italian,” he said. “Aren’t you drunk?”
“Sure,” she said. “But on culture. Half on wine and half on culture. Do you want to go?”
In her car, Richard glanced once in a while at the powder of snow that clung to the hood. He didn’t worry that his luck might be “too” bad. He even wanted to exaggerate the likelihood of icy patches on the road, as if that were a specific solution to some vague problem. He didn’t try to guess what might go through Liz’s mind when she would look for him and then drive home alone. After their initial “fling” he had never bothered to wonder what she thought. Richard knew that he would only think a couple of thoughts with the young lady, whose name he promised himself he would never repeat. One of these thoughts was that, sometime before morning came to “save him,” he would probably feel like going outside to sit by himself in the snow, by this road.