It could have been an accident, but there are some who, like literary critics, can't resist picking apart each element of another person's life, if not to prove anything, then for the glory of discovering somebody else's eccentricities. It runs in families, I'm told. In fact, one of my grandfathers was often rumored to be intrigued by last month's bills when visiting his children, though he was never caught with evidence more damning than a torn Con Edison envelope, handing it to my mother with a look suggesting she'd dropped it on the floor. That the bill was flattened for easy reading on the desk behind him was held of no more consequence than Alex accorded me for squatting behind his piano early one evening last week. He shook his head: "What on earth are you doing in that posture that you think I'll believe?" Dusting off my knees, I lugged myself upright, enjoying Alex's wince as the piano bench skidded under my weight into a piano leg. With mock concern for a tiny scratch, I made my accusation:
"Alex, you've never painted behind the piano."
Without hesitation he replied: "Did Rembrandt paint the other side of Homer's bust?"
Strange as it sounded for him to compare his apartment to an object in a painting, his argument was hard to counter. For Alex conceived of his home on Central Park West as a stage on which he hoped, by good lighting, artful sound, and theatrical tricks to convince his objects of affection to perform unspeakable acts of love. I probably noticed this because I have never found anything attractive about him; further, as anyone outside of a committee on sexual harassment knows, such affects succeed only with the willing, not with the unwary. Who but an eager lover would believe that these paper Mikado motifs, Alex's latest craze, were for no one but him? And, as stage sets look when the play's dark, so did Alex's apartment when I visited last week -- a complex tool for illusion naked in the absence of light or of acting. Is anyone really embarassed by such things? How often is anyone fooled who doesn't want to be?
Alex's apartment is constantly re-designed for a pleasurable game, much as a theater is, or a book of poetry. And where people agree to play, such appearances are not about seduction; they're part of games people want to play. The lover wants to give; the loved wants to take. As their connection evolves and complicates, each meeting may come to resemble and be as predictable as a dance. But, as silly as its steps might look to an outsider, to the couple on the floor they comprise their dance and their song. The theater is another fine example, as is the use of prosody, meter, figure and narrative convention in a poem. At today's play, for instance, we agree to believe that a fat woman wearing a cardboard crown is Queen Elizabeth the First, and further, that she's in love with the bony-kneed man in tights and improbably large codpiece who proposes that he is Sir Walter Raleigh. It doesn't matter that she's twenty years too old and that he's twenty years too young, that both live in Brooklyn in 2001, not at a royal court in 1576, nor that they speak with great confidence in a language unlike anything we use offstage, however much the diction sounds contemporary.
We play every time we go to the theater, turn on a TV show, or watch a movie, agreeing that conventions of false representation are so suitable that we should accept them as representative of the real until the titles roll or the curtain drops. And audiences have been agreeing to play by similar theatrical rules for thousands of years. In return, they find relief in guffaws, amazement, or tears, real emotions in response to character and stories equally falsified by actors and the writer. As games go, the theater, like courtship and dances developed around sexuality, is highly civilizing. Its power arose in part from ritual illusions which had taken the place of ritual murders in earlier times. (The ancient Roman fascination with real death in its arenas -- the real story, the real words? -- was reactionary, replacing their all-too-brief interest in the elaborate artifice of Greek drama, and in its Roman derivations, with public slaughter scarcely disguised as theater spectacular.)
Poetry too is civilizing with its foot, phrase, line and stanza, nevermind the subtleties of narrative convention, imagined dialogues, and speculative essays substituted for the insistent bellowing of a belligerent monologist. All of the conventions of the art assume that there is an audience which shares the language and agrees to the conventions; they also help the monologist create a work of art that someone other than he will want to hear. The dismal, even pitiable, irony of playwrights, actors, or lovers who want to trash these conventions without exception seems blatant, except among certain kinds of American poets.
You know the type -- undergraduate Hamilton, masters from Yale, PhD from Harvard, yet whose devotion to his acquired social status of proletarian is so great that he hasn't changed his unkempt hipster look in forty years, except, on occasion and thankfully, to change his socks and his underwear. A deep student of a range of works (and commentaries upon them) from Petrarch to Racine to Longfellow to Dickinson to Frost to Bogan, and whose thesis was considered a minor masterpiece of understated elegance, he proposes himself to be a truck driver with an amateur's affinity for reading poetry, and a pimp's taste in vocabulary when writing his own. "And you know the only reason he gets away with it," notes Alex, who's been reading my mind.
"No, Alex, I don't," I replied, in a tone I hoped indicated that I was lying.
As pleased as I knew he would be, Alex drew himself up to give a little lecture: "Please, Arthur, everyone knows he's as phoney as a three-dollar bill. Nobody cares about what words he puts on paper. He is the work of art they wish to consort with. Imagine what would happen if he showed up in a suit and tie. If he didn't sound like Richard Wilbur, they'd kick him out for a barbarian."
It was shortly after that when I began to understand the role of poet-laureate.
Okay, so give it a rest; I changed the title. The painting was "Aristotle Contemplating the Bust of Homer"