The Bench: the Life of Things

In times past, the German sculptor, Paul Schatz, related his experience at the woodcarving school in Warmbrunn in north-east Germany where accomplished students were finally allowed to copy a statue. Schatz chose a medieval Mater Dolorosa. After making the first cut, he said he worked in a mood of reverence. As he was working on the face of the statue with a fine chisel he suddenly stopped and stared at his work; he had noted that the Madonna was looking at him. That experience was repeated and became more intense. Much later he found some substantiation of his experience in a poem by Rainer Maria Rilke, Archaic Torso of Apollo, written in admiration of the beauty of the Ancient Greek headless torso of Apollo in the Louvre. The poem ends: … ‘for there is no part of the sculpture which does not see you. You must change your life.’

Now I understand Schatz and I like to work into my stories the magic of objects around us. I’ve always been fascinated by those poets convinced of a relationship between man’s eyes and the object of his gaze, that the things we really see see us as much as we see them. I appreciate Baudelaire’s words in Fleurs du Mal: Man wends his way through forests of symbols/ Which look at him with their familiar glances. I want to feel my subjects like Baudelaire did. I have come to believe that the objects around us—a table, a glass we stare into, yellow wine bubbles—also see us … as Rilke writes about Apollo. Like Rilke and Baudelaire, a new world opens for you when you convince yourself that every object around you is hiding secrets, secrets that reveal their nature. The secret that everything that passes between the spiritual and material worlds are connected by vision and words maybe speaking to you. When I think of communication with inanimate objects, I wonder if they are truly inanimate. And if they too are not filled with the passion and inspiration of Andalusian duende.

Then when I first saw the hand-made bench in my daughter’s yard, I recalled Socrates’ metaphor of the three beds in his The Republic and his warning about the difficulty of ever attaining real truth. For me, his metaphor will always be emblematic of the problem of the degeneration from the ideal to the banal: according to the Socrates metaphor, the first bed, made by God, is the Platonic ideal; a carpenter then makes a second bed in imitation of that ideal bed; and the artist subsequently paints a third bed in imitation of the carpenter’s imitation of the ideal bed. Later imitators—painters, sculptors or photographers—then capture less and less of the ideal. They might graze the reality of a carpenter making a bed or of an artist painting a carpenter making a bed, but they can never attain the true ideal of the original creation. I had seen in my short bureaucratic career that the higher you go up the chain of command, the more distortion of any original idea you might meet.

My daughter Alessandra had been in Greece last summer where she fell in love with a bench she saw in a sidewalk café on a small square in Rhodes.

“The bench kept looking at me. Anywhere I went on the square its eyes seemed to follow me. You know what I mean?”

“Did it speak to you?”

“Of course it did … you know that.”

“And what did it say?”

“It said, ‘take me with you to Italy.’”

So, predictably, she did … in a technological way. She photographed it on her I-phone and sent it—let’s say she messaged the first copy of the bench—to her brother-in-law in Rome—who can copy anything—asking if he could make her a bench just like the one in Rhodes. When she showed me the photograph of the original and the bench he made, I recalled again that Socrates’ metaphor.

Now, with the philosopher’s warning in mind, I sit uneasily on that bench in my daughter’s yard in Rome. I feel ephemeral. I know the bench perceives the same impermanence as I. So I hope the perception of sitting on an imitation will soon become acceptable. More realistic. I look for its eyes. And I see them looking back at me. They are looking at me through eyes in each arm of the bench which I had taken for mere knots in the wood. Yet the bench-imitation has not yet spoken to me, as did the original to my daughter.

Now my daughter’s brother-in-law is an expert copier, that is, Socrates’ imitator. But the copy of the cellphone photograph—the first copy of the Rhodes bench—and then the copier of that photograph are step by step farther removed from the original. The bench in the Rome yard, a copy of the photographic copy of the original bench on the plateia in Rhodes can only touch on a small part of things as they really are.

A bench may appear differently from various points of view, looked at obliquely or directly, as when you look at yourself in a mirror which specialists know keeps for itself some ten percent of the original real you. So painters or poets or photographers, though they may paint or describe or depict a carpenter or any other maker of things, know only part of the original craftsman’s creation. Though the better painters or poets or craftsmen they are, the more faithfully their works of art will resemble the reality of the carpenter making a bench or a bed, nonetheless the imitators will still never attain the truth of God’s original creation. Poets, beginning with Homer, are mere imitators who copy again and again images of virtue and rhapsodize about them.

So today, when I sit on the bench in my daughter’s yard in the fall sunshine, I look to the left and to the right of me at those eyes in the bench’s arms looking at me and wonder if Socrates was after all wrong. Did he know what he was talking about? Or was he perhaps only looking for a good metaphor to liven his art while in reality he knew nothing about the maker of wooden beds? Nor about woodcarvers in general?

And so it goes in human life. There are those who recall that in literature and philosophy even the ancient Greek gods were preordained by enigmatic Fate. It is recalled that three secret Greek gods spun a bottle in their attempt to determine the future actions and events of a life. And Nietzsche—even more complex—believed that every philosophy conceals another philosophy, every opinion is a hiding place for other opinions and every word a mask covering other words. I however have the thought that those are too difficult thoughts … and maybe deceptive.

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