Monthly Archives: March 2014

A Rome of Nameless Things

“No, all ambition has the reek of disease about it, the relentless smell of the self—except for that terrible, blissful feeling at the heart of creation itself, when all thought of your name is obliterated and all you want is the poem, to be the means wherein something of reality, perhaps even something of eternity, realizes itself. That is noble ambition… So long as your ambition is to stamp your existence upon existence, your nature on nature, then your ambition is corrupt and you are pursuing a ghost.”

—From Christian Wiman’s My Bright Abyss.

 I was strolling through the Vatican Museum in Rome last weekend, casually surveying the artistic riches of centuries of Papal dominance, when the terrifying reality of true anonymity hit me harder than I was ready for. The thought had surely crossed my mind before—that at the end of my life, after all the toil and ambition and striving to live well, to create at least one beautiful thing that spoke of something greater than myself—that my name could be wiped from the long scroll of human life, that everything I’d ever said or done would soon become irrevocably detached from my own existence. Or that, somehow, however unlikely it may seem, something that I made, with words or with actions, could outlive my own meager legacy. My apologies for the slightly dramatic tone, but Rome has a way of encouraging one to speak in eternal turns of phrase. It just feels right.

More specifically, I was staring across a velvet rope at the twisting torso of the Laocoön, IMG_2025one of the most immaculate pieces of sculpture of all time, when it hit me that the man who had carved this terrifyingly beautiful thing from marble—over 1,500 years before Michelangelo carved his David—was literally unknown to the millions of people who laid eyes on it. Not the Roman officials who would have sauntered past it in the Ancient Forum, or the tourists, like me, who snap photos so they can hold on to its miniature image forever.  Considering the culture of the day, which tended to view visual artists as tradesman rather than creative masters, it’s likely that the man who carved this statue knew as he was carving it that no one would ever know he did. I have a hard enough time writing a haiku in my notebook without a place to display my signature.  This guy carved the Laocoön, probably without so much as a nameplate.

I leaned in as close to the body of marble as I could, trying to convince myself that this figure torqueing heroically from the grip of serpents, was, in fact, stone. To believe that it was once a formless mass of rock requires a suspension of reality. It’s that good. Why would anybody endure the infuriating labor that this thing must have required, if not to have at least some scrap of recognition for his efforts, even the softest pat on the back? Surely, no one was holding a spear to his head. Who knows—maybe they were—but that’s not the point. The point is that it’s still standing, still beautiful, still nameless.

I read the above passage from Christian Wiman’s My Bright Abyss (an incredible book, I might add) just a few days after returning from Rome, a city where so much of its beauty is anonymous, and his words could not have rung more truly.  As you stare at a painting on the ceiling of a Christian Catacomb, painted there in secret within one hundred years of Christ’s death, you have to ask yourself: what if the person who painted this flat out didn’t do it? What then? What if every sculptor, painter, and architect in this city stared at its blank spaces, and said, “This is too much work, too much risk, to go unknown”? Rome, or any beautiful thing for that matter, would not exist.  Rome intensifies the reality that Wiman urges us to see: that if the original spark that fueled the creation of those beautiful things—what he called “that terrible, blissful feeling at the heart of creation itself”—can persist admidst the endless barrage of the ego, the desire to be known, heard, recognized, proven worthy of attention, then that beauty grows beyond human proportions.

Certainly, the Laocoön is beautiful purely because it exists. My dentist could have made it yesterday and it would still be one the most incredible things I’ve ever laid eyes on. Granted, it would be a very different kind of incredible if my dentist made it. But doesn’t its pure, mysterious existence make it that much more incredible? Doesn’t it feel somehow bigger without a name?

I find this thought both terrifying and invigorating. The thought that if I were so lucky to make, or say, or do something that people will still see, or hear, or know of, even 50 years from now, that they might not ever know I did it— that’s scary. It cuts to the core. It makes me ask myself why  really I do what I do. But then when I really think about it, when I really get to the nitty-gritty of why I want to write at all, I know that somewhere deep in the mire of my own selfish ambitions to be known through my own words, “to stamp my existence upon existence,” there was once the faintest inkling of a pure desire to speak a truth of something bigger, better, more beautiful than I could ever imagine taking credit for. I desperately hope that I would remember that the impulse to make beauty is not my own. That if I ever I stumble upon the words to move somebody towards a more beautiful experience of this life or of God, that I would recall that first spark. That spark doesn’t care what kind of feeble recognition lies ahead. But what really scares me is how long it’s been since I’ve even considered that type of pure impulse. In all the chaos of post-graduate life, of searching for a “vocation”, I’ve bought into the bogus notion that in order to prove my own existence, I must be heard. And what a burden in this age of noise!

I realize the blatant contradiction here, considering you’re probably reading this because I lambasted your Facebook newsfeed. But do I really have I choice?

Of course I do. In this case, I’m choosing to acknowledge the fact that it is damn near impossible to make or do something with absolutely no ambition to be known. But the Laocoön, the city of Rome, and the million other beautiful things made by unnamed makers, exist to prove that the work we do will outlive our selfish ambitions. Our names are known in other, better ways. On second thought, maybe that’s not so terrifying. Maybe the threat of total anonymity in this life can remind us that there is some remnant of a flame, one that burns to shed light on better things than names.

Rain-Running and a Man Named Sam

I met Samuel on the Corso—Orvieto’s main road, which cuts through the heart of town—almost two years ago on the type of blustery, gray day that defines much of the late winter in this particular Italian region, called Umbria. As far as I can remember, Samuel and I were the only two people on the entire street: him under an awning, waiting for the sudden swell of sheet-rain to pass, and me, running in a soaked-through, bright blue raincoat and running shorts. I remember turning and glancing at him as I charged past, probably thinking that I looked quite heroic, and being struck by how clearly he stared back at me, nodding, almost like he knew something. All I knew of Samuel was that he was one of about five Nigerien men who came to Orvieto to sell socks to tourists on the weekends. The interactions I’d had with them were typically clipped and lacked any memorable sincerity.           

 Ciao! Would you like some socks? one of them would ask.        

  No, thanks, I’d say.

So, needless to say, the intensity of Samuel’s glare struck me. Americans are gawkers, I’ve come to realize, but Italians, both natives and emigrants alike, don’t stare. Nothing surprises them, apparently. Perhaps he was considering me as a worthy client for some dry socks, who knows. I returned to my apartment and cleaned up, dried off, and headed out again for a coffee, because there’s nothing like watching the rain from a dry spot with a hot drink, knowing that the rain’s already done its worst. But on my way to the Café, Samuel and I crossed paths. He stopped me, grabbed my arm, and emphatically said,            

   Were you the one running?

   Uh, yes. That was me, I said, a little caught off guard.

He held out his hand for me to shake and I reached for it. He didn’t let go as he continued, Beautiful day. Beautiful day to run. He stared directly into my eyes. His were wide and bright, almost glowing against the darkness of his skin, the bleakness of the day. He kept on shaking my hand.

     My name is Samuel, he said, pronouncing it like Sam-Well            

     Paul, I said. Pole, he repeated.

I don’t know much about Africa, but I do know that running is fairly common in many countries on the continent, both as a pastime and a form of transportation. Naturally, people raised in these cultures tend to be pretty damn good at running, and in some countries, running as sport can serve as a literal form of escape from poverty or conflict. But in most cases, running’s a lot like how we might view it: a temporary form of freedom. I also know that most Nigerians in Italy are, for a variety of reasons—including the country’s proximity to Africa’s Northern coast— refugees. Samuel, I figured, was forced to leave his home, however long ago it may have been.

We kept talking, and eventually he let go of my hand. He told me that he was fast when he was young. That he ran in the rain without his shoes. I believed every word, no longer wary that he was hustling me. There was earnestness in his voice; a simplicity in the way he spoke about the thing that we both loved. He told me that he lived in a small town some 60 Kilometers from Orvieto, and every morning he boarded the train to a different popular hill town with his duffel bag full of socks. I haven’t run in years, he said. We parted ways that afternoon, but every time he was back in town we seemed to bump into each other and would inevitably talk about running, about the steadily increasing temperatures, the never ending parade of spring-themed religious holidays in this country. I never asked about how many socks he’d sold, or if he was tired of selling to tourists who clearly didn’t want what he could offer them. Still, Samuel was always there.

Today, I ran out to the countryside for the first time since returning to Orvieto; out to an old abandoned house on the cusp of a lush swathe of vineyards. I stepped into the house, over grass growing through the floor. It was drizzling, and I peered through the broken windows at the green landscape stretching away from the house. Orvieto itself is alive and well; its medieval buildings still animated by families that have been here for countless generations, but old abandoned places like these mark the empty spaces surrounding the town. This year, I’m a Teacher’s Assistant for the drawing class that I’d previously taken as a student, and the town’s architecture is the primary subject. The students spread window-sized drawing pads on the cobblestones, peer up at the webs of arches and curving lines, and attempt to capture the city’s timeless likeness onto the page. Often, the city speaks for itself—it’s beautiful, and that’s all that matters. Nothing could go wrong here, with alleys and walls and windows like these, twisting through shafts of slanting yellow light. You could wander through the town, always looking up, and forget that humans actually exist.

But this time around, there’s a new theme that we’re hoping the students will begin to explore in their careful studies of the city’s physical space: The Figure. Whether it’s present in the frame, or somewhere outside of it, the presence of a living person is just as important as the buildings themselves. The people who walk along those streets and the weight they carry with them, and not just the pretty cobblestones. Not just the monstrous Cathedral in the center of town, but the monk who came to its steps on pilgrimage from some monastery 100 miles away, 500 years ago. There’s a temptation in these types of jaw-dropping medieval European cities to get swept up in all their aesthetic grandiosity, to marvel solely at the fact that they are old, very old, and yet still very beautiful. We forget that life happens here and cling to the idyllic image of the fruit stand, the bakery, the chapel, then hang it on the bathroom wall and imagine a simpler time, a place where life is better. But in that old abandoned house on the edge of town, there’s no mistaking the presence of The Figure, albeit an absent, forgotten one. I felt the family that may have lived there and had meals around a table every night, the children who might have played in the vineyard, and I thought about what might have forced them leave. You can’t stand inside, let alone draw a place like this without thinking about a person’s relationship to the space. There’s no such thing as an abandoned place without a person who left it there.

It started coming down again when I crossed back into town, so I took the Corso, straight through the city’s center. I was less convinced of my own heroics this time, though, partially because I’ve lost a bit of my edge over the last year and was probably flailing, but also because I was thinking about that abandoned house. The streets were nearly empty again, so I couldn’t help but imagine that I was running through a city that had been left behind. But as I ran past the Clock Tower in the center of town, and then a series of Cafés and bakeries, I turned to see Samuel there under an awning again, waiting for the rain to pass. He looked at me in the same way that he did on that afternoon two years ago, like he knew how it felt to run.

I saw Samuel on the street again later in the day, and shook his hand.

 How have you been? I asked him.              

 OK. Not bad, he said tentatively. He looked down, then back up at me, and corrected himself. Well, trying to be OK, he said, still holding onto my hand.

We chatted for a minute or two, then parted ways. One love, he said, patting his chest.

Even though I had to remind Samuel that we’d met before, that’s not what really matters. What matters is that when I sit down to write about this city, with all its inimitable physical beauty, its medieval Cathedrals and slanting light, that I would not forget about him. That I wouldn’t think just about the awning over the café, but about the people like Samuel who stand below them.  It pains me to say that I’ve walked away from dozens of towns like Orvieto, all across Europe, with a sense that I’d missed something. The truth is, I have. Chalk it up to newfound maturity, or a waning sense of romanticism, or whatever, but upon returning to Orvieto this time, the picturesque vistas that once blinded me from this city’s depth just aren’t enough anymore. Give me a figure in the frame, and then this city means something. Without it, any town might as well be abandoned.