Day of Unknown Languages

February 17, 2012 Comments Off on Day of Unknown Languages

We got to Mount Sinai Medical School and were promptly met by a cold receptionist with no idea that Simon was coming who told us that the woman he had been in touch with was not at work today. “But you’re welcome to look around and take the tour at one,” she said coldly. We were extremely discouraged, but eventually went back to her to beg for the privilege of internet so we could try to figure out who else Simon might be able to talk with that day. In disgust she handed us off to another receptionist, who turned out to be brisk and helpful—she walked us to Curriculum, where Simon asked a lot of questions, and Student Affairs, where they were in a meeting. Killing time until they got out, we went down to the cafeteria to sample the food (in the interests of science, you know). Back upstairs we asked more questions and then attended a pharmacology lecture on treatments for hormone disorders, which was pretty interesting even if most of the details did sound like deliberately unintelligible technobabble from a bad sci-fi movie.

After that we went to the Metropolitan Museum of Art, which I had visited before, but I have no memory of that visit because I was deathly ill at the time and I may or may not have sat in the lobby for an hour waiting for my group to come back out. On this occasion I was on a pilgrimage to see this:

Le Christ mort aux anges, by Édouard Manet

In the rooms full of 19th-century French paintings where we eventually found it, I spotted many, many paintings I recognized from the fantastic classes of one Nicolas Baudouin, and I giddily pointed them out to an obliging Simon. But the Manet was really my goal, because M Baudouin’s lecture about this painting made the top of my head come off and float above me as I was bathed in golden light from Above. Manet is famous for involving the viewer in his paintings: you have always just walked in on someone.


Un bar aux Folies Bergères

Le déjeuner sur l'herbe

So, clearly, somehow you are in the room (tomb?) with dead Jesus, which is a very unsettling thought. Plus, if he is dead, his eyes are open, which is not something you see in most dead-person paintings of the time—especially dead-Jesus paintings—and it is unsettling both for its own sake and because it feels disrespectful, almost—private. And on top of this, everything is ambiguous: is Jesus being laid to rest, or is he being resurrected? Is the angel supporting him sad, or determined? And then comes the final blow: the spear wound, which as every artist knows was on Jesus’ right side, is in fact on his left. It is almost, said M Baudouin, as if we are meant to be looking in a mirror. And that’s the point at which my head came off. Think about that! What does it mean? Say it represents the human race—because everyone who looks at this painting sees the same “reflection,” regardless of who they are—are we mundane or divine? Are our wounds killing us or being healed? Are we dying or are we being raised up?

I had to sit and stare for a very long time before I was capable of moving again.

Eventually I recovered and we went down to the Islamic art area, which ended up being equally moving. In the beginning there was a lot of metalwork—little bowls and ewers with intricate inlay of gold and silver—and the pieces were so finely detailed that if I had owned one I would probably hardly ever notice it, but when I imagined a house, or even a room, filled with objects each as minutely gorgeous as the next, the impression of opulence overcame me. It is so different than the opulence expressed by smooth, polished objects—much more effective, to my mind, and I fell into fancies worthy of Amelia Peabody herself.

The objects at the beginning were stunning, but the later parts of the exhibit were the ones that plunged me into a sort of trance or haze of wonder. There were two whole rooms: a reception room and a courtyard. The reception room was paneled in intricately carved dark wood—even the ceiling!—with lush red velvet cushions on the low seats around the edges and shelves full of fine objects. There were intricate tiled patterns on the floor and on the vertical face of the large step that separated the sitting area from the entrance. In the center of the low entrance was a marble bowl full of gurgling water. It was extremely peaceful and dignified. I have since resolved to put fountains in my house one day. The courtyard was even more amazing. The marble colonnades along two sides were so deeply carved that the rock looked fragile and lacy, and a similarly stunning shutter stood in a “window” on another side. There were carved panels along both other walls, and once again there was a marble bowl of water in the center, although this one was still and contained water lilies. It was gorgeous and I will also have such a courtyard in my house one day.

But what really sent me over the edge were the pages. The ability to write such gorgeous calligraphy is a strong argument for me learning Arabic next. I think the alphabet is beautiful, and the things that can be done with it, to my ignorant eye, surpass in leaps and bounds the things that can be done with Roman letters. But more amazing to me than the letters themselves were the illuminations: gold leaf and indigo dye and paintings of geometric and floral patterns so tiny and exquisite that there were rows of cases with people bent over, almost pressed against the glass, drinking in the detail. The exhibit went in order of things that interested me least to things that interested me most, ending, of course, with language and books. I came out transported—I felt like Simon had to lead me out of the museum on a string, like a helium balloon.

The next hour or two were spent lying comatose in the hotel room while circulation gradually returned to our museum-deflated feet. But then we got up and went to services at Anche Chesed. These Friday-night services are my favorite: they take place in a reasonably prosaic room—aside from the big ark in one wall—that ends up feeling like a casual meeting at your favorite bookshop. There’s a lot of singing that reminds me of Gregorian chant—some of it everyone knows, and there are a couple homegrown harmonies, and it’s so much better than most of those stupid Christian hymns, with their stilted piano parts and predictable melodies. And one day I will actually learn the Mourners’ Kaddish so that when I stand with the people who have recently lost someone (hopefully not again soon) I can say it with them. What I especially love about these services is the people who get really into the prayers; in my memories of Catholic Masses there are few if any people who actually prayed hard—mostly they just close their eyes and dully chant the Lord’s Prayer with everyone else—but here many people squeeze their eyes tight and rock back and forth and mutter the prayers to themselves, and it makes me feel inspired and abashed to be present in the face of such devotion (or at least the appearance thereof). If I weren’t already satisfied with my spiritual life, I would probably convert to Judaism and move to New York just so I could go to this temple.

Afterwards we went to a wonderful Greek restaurant for dinner, and there was much sangria. Upon reflection, I realized that I spent fifteen minutes in a cab listening to the driver lecture on his phone in a language I didn’t recognize (which, yes, is apparently illegal), an hour listening to medical babble about G-proteins and Janus kinases, a very long time staring at Arabic calligraphy with some Greek and cuneiform thrown in in passing, and another hour or so listening to Hebrew and Aramaic. The ratio of words I understood to the total words I absorbed today was perhaps the lowest that it has ever been in my life.



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