Sitting across from one another on opposite banks of the Seine stand the Louvre and Musee d’Orsay. Both are world-class museums, but if you end up in Paris, I recommend the latter. Most people will ignore this advice because they’re supposed to go to the Louvre. It’s just one of those things you do in Paris, like visiting the Eiffel Tower, which most people do on their first day. Well, it took me more than a month to get around to visiting the Tower, and I prefer the museum that I enjoy visiting to the one that I am supposed to.
The Louvre is a series of endless room that are filled with the sounds and smells of 12,000 tourists at a time, all of them pushing and struggling along their impatient way to see the Venus de Milo or the Mona Lisa or any of the handful of other pieces they actually recognized. When I was there, the sight of so many people fighting to see Mona’s famous smirk was somewhat humorous, as I knew that the real painting was in New York getting touched up. But I suppose that imitation is the highest form of flattery, so perhaps Leonardo would forgive the situation.
If the Louvre is a carnival, filled with sights and sounds and crowds and chaos, the Orsay is a quiet walk through a starlit field. There is more space to breathe, more room to reflect, and more opportunity for conversation. But it is not a conversation with the living, for art is our means of communicating with the dead.
The Great Conversation: Ideas Spanning the Ages
Too many people go through life under the misconception that a book is just that, a book, a self-contained story. Or that a painting is just color on canvas, pretty to look at, but expressing nothing more than an instant in time. This could not be further from the truth.
Art is what I like to call the Great Conversation. It is our means of passing lessons, ideas, fantasies, fears, legends, and warnings across the river of time.
I cannot speak to Homer, but I can read his words, then read what Virgil replied some 700 years later. After roughly thirteen more centuries went by, Dante Alighieri spoke up, who Rabelais interrupted rather rudely with a fart joke in the late 1500’s. Then nearly three millennia after Homer first got the discussion underway, Hemingway and Miller decided to have their say. Papa agreed with Dante, but Henry was more inclined to take Rabelais’ side. Today we have Cormac McCarthy and Tom Robbins interjecting with books like Blood Meridian and Jitterbug Perfume. McCarthy seems to have taken up with Hem, while Robbins seems to be whistling his way through a side conversation with Miller, Rabelais, and a few of the more light-hearted mystics from back East. And I don’t mean New England. I mean way back East.
It is one thing to read a book, look at a painting, or listen to a song, but it is another thing entirely to join the conversation. That means becoming involved. It means listening, then responding. It means taking in what others have put into the Great Conversation before, then adding your own say.
Why Listen, Why Speak?
Every work of art is a message in a bottle cast into the sea of Time. Imagine if you were walking down the beach and you found a real message in a bottle, perhaps from someone who was stranded and alone. Or perhaps it is a message proclaiming some undying but impossible love. Or maybe someone simply scribbled down a few lines of silly poetry and tossed them into the sea on a lark. Or it could even be a warning of dangerous monsters lurking in the dark depths of the ocean.
How would you feel, finding and reading such a message? What a thrill—this bottle has floated from who knows where for who knows how long, and of all the places and people in the world, it washed ashore for you to find.
The fact that we have art is just as magical. There is a reason why tyrants always try to censor it. Art inspires us to look beyond our present condition. It screams out, “I suffered, I broke free, I succeeded, I lived.” It pushes you onward, crying, “If I did it you can too!” Or it warns, “Learn from my mistakes.”
And you can. You can survive and overcome the oppressions of poverty, tyranny, or self-loathing. Van Gogh, Ngugi wa Thiong’o, and Dostoyevsky did it. You can break free of the ennui and emptiness of financial and social status, like Larry Darrell does in Maugham’s the Razor’s Edge. You can find elation, sexual liberation, and perhaps even some form of transcendence, as too many artists to name have.
The point is that the Great Conversation provides us as a species with the opportunity to speak on a grand scale that supersedes time. In the Great Conversation, there is no end to the exchange of ideas. There is no death. There is only expanding and building.
You cannot live forever, but once you’ve joined the Great Conversation, your words will forever be heard.
I’m going to wrap this up with a story.
Now we’re back at Musee d’Orsay. I’ve been wandering its rooms for some time. Cezanne is in this room, Redon in that one. It’s all quite peaceful.
Suddenly I walk into a new room and the peace is broken. Staring at me is the swirling portrait of Vincent Van Gogh. His expression is severe, sad eyes, the air behind him boils and I with it. All of the madness, the startlingly pure madness that I and everyone else keep at bay like some riled bear stares me right in the face. For a moment I am afraid. In that moment Van Gogh is warning me, “Let it flow but keep it contained.” My head becomes a pressure cooker, allowing a trickle of the primeval madness escape lest the whole thing explodes.
I move on…
Next is Starry Night Over the Rhone, and Van Gogh is telling me something different. He is reminding me that there is repose. That through all the swirling chaos of this world, there is peace and tranquility. But it must be sought out.
I move on…
Around the corner I step in front of Monet’s Woman With Parasol, and I am overcome. No photo can do it justice. It is much, much bigger in real life. She stands atop a hill as if watching a lover go, perhaps forever. And suddenly the weight of everything I had ever left behind and everything I had ever watched pass out of my life became too much and I am filled with it, absolutely filled with emptiness, but not like the Buddhists say, not that clear, light emptiness that comes with sublime knowledge. Instead, it is the heavy and oppressive emptiness of a vacuum. Not a quiet, but a deafening silence. A roaring loneliness.
But it only lasts a moment. Something about the gentle swirll of the lighthearted colors whispers, “It’s okay.” Monet is telling me that life is full of loss and loneliness. But for there to be loss there must have first been love, and life is equally full of love and light.
I move on…
Before visiting the Orsay, I had never been so affected by a painting. In fact, I had never cared much for paintings at all. They were fine and all, but I could take them or leave them.
But something was changing in me during that period of my life. For as long as I had known, I was listening to the Great Conversation with deaf ears. I paid attention but never noticed. For the first time in my life I was truly receiving. Now I could hear, and everything I heard ended with a question: “So—when are you going to take your turn to speak?”
I suppose that I’m still working on that part of the equation.