By Shane Devine
The halls were empty, and the ceiling lights shined brightly. Robert walked to the back of the Metropolitan Museum of Art with a brisk pace, feeling pressed for time to complete a university assignment before dinner. His boots left slight prints of slush before they eventually dried off, and his heartbeat slowly calmed into a regular rhythm as he situated himself in the quiet museum. He was exhausted after biking up the eastern side of the Manhattan Peninsula. Coming from an art class he had been neglecting, he was now consumed with stress and worry. He sat down on a wooden bench in the middle of a gallery room to take off his gloves, hat, and scarf.
A lone Asian woman, standing in the far corner of the room, was inspecting a portrait. Robert took repeated glances at her while using his smartphone, imagining what her life was like. He regained his bearings, shamed himself for using his phone, and stood up. He held his coat at his side and walked slowly through the halls trying to find a painting to write about for class until he came across two works hung side by side, both of which depicted rooms filled with paintings. He had seen them before, but only now did he realize how strange they were, how odd it was that this artist from the 1700s had created such a thing. He liked Panini’s other works: the classical ruins of a dead Rome with 18th century people in tricorne hats and petticoats walking amongst them, or large magisterial views of then-thriving London. But these seemed odd, almost too modernist for a painter of Panini’s day to create – tasteless in their references and overly theoretical in their breaking of the fourth wall. He examined Ancient Rome, the first of the two, and read the plaque. It spoke of the painting having been made for a duke of France, a minister for Louis XV, who was represented in the work as a figure amongst the collection of paintings, alongside the artist Panini himself.
He let the work sing its song without any of his own intellectual intervention. The painting stood tall, crowded with images. The outer rim of the image was decorated with dark green drapery, like he was being allowed in to a hidden area. At first it seemed cluttered, like it was an archive, a physical inventory of artworks for a museum or, in their day, a palace. The longer he looked the grander it seemed: less cluttered, tidier. Rather than a jumble of objects, the depicted paintings and sculptures each began to create their own absolute world in an authentic effect, as if he was viewing the actual works themselves. A humming voice slowly dripped into his eardrums as he remembered lessons from his lecture on the Aeneid, and a passage within the poem where Muse-crafted wisdom was sung by Virgil through the mouth of his man Aeneas, who, on departing from the land of Andromache and Helenus, told that all the Trojan nations, spread out and diasporic, would unite again in a single Troy; that this task of uniting their disparate lands would be the work of their heirs. What inspirited lines, what poetic revision, what a convalescent recovery from a horrific past! How the Laocoön statue in the corner of Panini’s painting, looming towards Death, strove with such awful desire to escape the clutches of the serpent spun round his body, with another wrapped around his legs and the legs of his progeny. How he cries out towards the room’s center, blind to the Roman future he is facing; how he is calling, from the depths of his muscled abdomen, for the Trojans to escape the threat of disappearance. That the sack of Troy was in not in vain, that the culture of Rome was not solely in debt to a Achaean inheritance but an original source; that from this cataclysmic event, the Trojan War, which set the Mediterranean in motion, came the greatest of all empires, destined to subdue the nations, including the Greeks, and bring it under the grandest of all political projects, the purification of the world – such things did Virgil teach. And such things Rome did: for from the Roman Rule of Law the ancient world learned to distinguish between the low and the mighty, the base and the noble, the sick and the healthy. The world was thus purified, and for such a moment, suspended in time, the higher members of mankind conquered the masses and pacified their vitriol.
We follow Laocoön’s gaze forwards and upwards: paintings of temples, columns, and colonnades cover the walls: they are imposing in their simplistic grandeur. A statue of Silenus swaddling the infant Bacchus stands not far from Laocoön, heralding with his birth the glorious wine-fueled ecstasies to come. In between them lies a vase, sculpted upon which are dancers and players, humming frozen songs of a higher humanity. Further to the center are men from the 18th century, gazing upon these works just as Robert is gazing upon this aesthetic portal. Some of the gentlemen are facing the viewer, or the Future, and some are gazing into the Past, through a painting of the Aldobrandini wedding, traced from an ancient Roman fresco. The modern men, dressed in petticoats and powdered wigs, read of the ancients in the pages they hold or look upon the ancients in the artwork, conceiving them as frivolous youths who freely danced in robes and wore fine laurels. The room then brightens, the sense of purpose is elevated; Robert’s vision swells in a beam of sunshine under which all is perfected, every soul is enlightened, every speck of dust is given a semblance of divine identity. There is no sickness anymore: no decay, no modern tinge, no sense of fallenness – Robert has been transported along with the gentlemen into a marriage with fine air, a wedding in which good spirits baptize every aspect of creation in sublime delight.
Around them the other artworks and artifacts make impressions on their trance: flowers grace the smells, vases pour out the holy vintage, a sphinx makes a riddle of life, temples shine boldly with foliage decorating their exterior, and the coliseum hangs marvelously above them, swaying in a tension of nervous energy, boiling in august sunlight. That coliseum, whose center arena has soaked into itself more blood than any piece of land on earth, whose grains of sand swallowed day after day the carnage of games for an empire whose status was Power personified – that coliseum, sprouting up like a plant which is watered with death, who grows mighty from the sacrifice of life, and is paradoxically the greatest celebration of life in its elevation of battle, of life versus life – that coliseum, groaning with force, pulsating with oppressive sounds . . . its meaning is still obscure. How could modern men ever understand such joviality at torment, such frivolity in the face of so much pain? Could our stomachs even withstand such a spectacle? Could our nerves even handle the sight?
And yet Robert and the gentlemen do not swoon – instead their nerves are hardened. Their grips grow fiercer, their legs become sturdier, their faces become flush with healthy complexions, and their consciousness is increased rather than withered under softening intoxication. They grow manlier from exposure to these arts, rather than more feminine, as would be the case with Monet. Their confidence in their senses and lived-experiences is heightened. The scene is crisp. Apollo Belvedere guides them towards form and balance. A glimpse of the natural world, hitherto barred by the great surplus of human-made works, is now visible in the far distance. The sun is resting just over a mountain range, warming the low skies with orange hues. It is uncertain whether the time of day is dusk or dawn, whether it is the Beginning or the End of this moment of health, but the sun shines regardless, and shines despite the clouds. A large tree is basking in rays and with its roots in good soil. It stands proud and firm upon an older earth; it is rich in nutrients and mighty in size, standing taller than the exterior balcony’s columns.
After sipping from the cup of natural beauty, Robert returns his gaze to the center room, beholding again the seemingly-infinite wealth of skillful human artifice. Beside some younger studious lads, seated apart from the gentleman he accompanied before, is the statue of The Dying Gaul. In his agony, suffering from a wound in war, he represents both the triumph of the Romans over barbarians and the Roman ability to find respect in their enemies, to beautify their depictions of the subdued, avoiding resentment and the petty squabbles of tribalism. No, Rome was bigger than that, stronger than that: hence the Farnese Hercules statue given the monarchic position over the scene, standing tall in the left-most corner and reviewing the whole train of items leading up to him. Leading the pack of Roman wonders, this sculpture proudly yet exhaustedly holds a garb of lion fur over his shoulder and the Hesperidean apples in his hidden hand. Slaughterer of the king of the animals, Hercules’ lion pelt fills him with the symbolic energy of Rome’s conquest over the natural world and the toughest nations; the apples, gained from his second to last labor, his penance for his senselessly foul murders, show how tired even a great hero can be after struggling for so long and gaining so much glory. So too does this painting, by the end of it, show how even Rome tires after the countless toils of the ages, despite them ending in victories. Overfull with trophies and masterpieces, the room finally rests in a heavy and sound slumber, the floor heaving and exhaling beneath the grand achievements . . .
His concentration was broken by the phone vibrating and ringing loudly from his pocket. The device, with a mind of its own, tore him away without regard for what he desired. He scrambled for his phone in great embarrassment, even though there was no one around him — except, only now noticed by Robert, a security guard two rooms over adjusting his stance and pretending not to look at him.
Finally, his phone was out of his pocket. Along its way out it had ceased to ring. The missed call was from his friend, who had sent him two text messages earlier, both of which Robert hadn’t seen or felt. One read: “holy shit you have to call me right now.” The other read: “Matt Mayford was killed in a shooting i’m not fucking kidding!!!!”
Facebook was similarly buzzing. Articles by highly-respected media websites were posted all over his newsfeed, both by the people from his hometown and even friends he made at college, since the story made the nightly news. According to one source he opened, this old high school friend — well, to call him a friend was a stretch, but no one wanted to say that now — was gunned down in a shopping mall parking lot next to the Hudson River. Eight other people were injured, but only Matt had been pronounced dead. The shooter had been identified as Mubarak Mohammed, 22, from Paterson, New Jersey. Robert felt a bath of nervous energy splash up and down his fingers, hands, and arms, and his throat dried up like a dawning sun visited a damp desert. He was parched and overwhelmed with fatigue. Before he could fully understand what had happened, he was already seeing Facebook posts with massive comment sections making claims about the shooter and his dead acquaintance. The screaming and the shouting and the yelling and the blogging and the posting and the clicking and — suddenly he was aware of a siren faintly blaring, turning and turning, in the distant background, padding the social media fury with an appropriate soundtrack. The Chaos deity and the Burning Rim of the Newsmouth, the never-satiated News, devoured one another like rabid dogs of the field. Some posters were yawping preemptively about racists, warning people about those xenophobes who will equate the identity of the shooter with his crime. But not minutes after they argued this point did the news announce that the shooter was a member of ISIS and committed his actions in the name of Islam. The newsfeed then exploded into a back-and-forth, some calling Islam a religion of terror and declaring that Muslims must be dealt with, while others sermonized that not all Muslims were terrorists and that we must not discriminate against people based on religion. A small amount justified the attacks based on a long-winded post about American imperialism in the Middle East, while another small portion viscerally attacked these theorists saying they should be physically punished as traitors to the state. Family and friends of Mayford brought up different facts about him in light of this tragedy. Those on the right were highlighting his commitment to veterans’ causes and his sincere patriotism, while those on the left reminisced about Matt’s disapproval of racism and bigotry. Those of a religious strain highlighted his work in the local church, and claimed that the Lord God had made a new angel. And those from the high school science department made sure to tell the religious that terrorists believing in supernatural myths had caused the event, in addition to reminding them of Matt’s love for chemistry and arguing with creationists about the science of evolution. Everyone was fighting for the meaning of his death, like a flock of vultures fighting for a corpse; his body was tossed around in a rigmarole of horror and awe to that tune of a faint city siren circling around and around its sound in the distant street.
The monotony of crime and decline gradually pushed Robert back into his disassociation from this contemporary world once more, pushing him to look at the painting hung next to Ancient Rome – it was its sequel, Modern Rome. This work more than the other, though both contained the same aristocratic gentlemen gazing upon works of art, struck him with the realization of how absurd the postmodern qualities of these works were. His thoughts then wandered into the question of what Italy was like in the seventeen-hundreds. “What were the Italians possibly doing in such a late age?”, Robert asked himself in astonishment. How much they had been through, how many chapters of civilization they had weathered, from primitive Etruscan paganism and Hellenistic colonization, to Roman republicanism and then imperialism, to the foundation of the Catholic church, through the middle ages with its numerous papal wars and disputes, and then into the Renaissance, once again surging with cultural instruction which all would follow with great reverence, and still with more energy in the measures against the Reformation and the construction of the baroque. And that endless train leads all the way to our time, of the Rome of Mussolini, the Rome of Marcello Mastroianni in La Dolce Vita, and the 21st century Rome of fashion runways and clothing-line debuts. The view of nature, tucked away in this painting just as in the previous one, is dimmer, cloudier, almost sunless.
To see these gentlemen here in this painting, contemplating Modern Rome, Rome in the 18th century, with the painting itself marking their behavior as fundamentally encyclopedic and archaeological through the mountains of artworks piled on one another like geological strata, documenting the endless waves of terror and war and shock and lightning and bombardment on the senses just like what Robert had experienced with the news on his phone and the sirens… how these late-born gentlemen joined by Panini himself, imbued with a historical pessimism of strength and masculine confidence, to the tune of a dry Venetian violin, speak to the viewer:
“ah, you moderns and your decaying colonial empires, which meant so very much to you, I am sure; to you Englishmen and Frenchmen, Germans and Americans; you upstarts in culture and civilization; allow me to calm your shaking nerves. The tremors you feel for the future, for your supposedly threatened existence, – well, we ourselves have been subject to this same fear throughout the ages, but with so many upheavals, ascensions, collapses, the washing-in and washing-out of the historic ocean, the explosions and the erosions of Time – how used to history we are, how little we need theories and systems to cope with the anxieties of labor, empire, commerce, fertility, race, success, failure… Our blood has returned again and again to our veins despite the mixtures and the invasions, despite the failures and errors. How many times have we had to fight the South and the East under all their different names and guises – Carthage, Hellenistic Egypt, the Levant, Persians, Jewish rebels; Sassanids, Moslems, Islamic Berbers, Saracens, Turks; now Africans, Islamic terrorists, Iranians, smugglers and criminals in our very streets. Or, how many times have we had to hold back invasions from the barbaric and crude north, under all their labels – Gauls, Visigoths, Ostrogoths, Vandals, Huns; Germanics, Holy Roman Emperors, Franks, Normans; Protestantism and its enslaving “work-ethic,” industrialism, technocracy, scientism, philistinism, and the globalist financial elite. How we have endured the trials of the ages, how we still stand; how things keep going, continuing, like a flowing river, coursing through our annals and histories, and how we strove, again and again, to sail upon its waters and reinvent ourselves, adapt ourselves, discipline ourselves every time. Gray beards grow upon our wrinkled faces, our libraries are crammed with memory. From this vantage point of old age we begin to see the secrets of civilization: they begin to unravel and reveal themselves. We have begun to see time as one continuous stream, without end, without beginning, feeding into itself once it depletes itself, without recourse to some final say above, without punishment by evaporation. We know the code, we know the way, we know the pulse, we know the road: we Romans, still affecting your columns in Oregon, still commanding your foreign policy in Syria, preside like an all-seeing Eye, illuminating the world with Reason, inflaming culture with Passion. All that you have known has happened before, all that seems new has been experienced an endless number of times. The human soul is not comprehended, and yet it has been traversed forever with detail beyond comprehension. Conquer the earth as many times as you can, and it will still reject your advances, only for you to try to conquer it once more. Life is perpetual struggle. A victory will eventually be a defeat for the will, while a defeat is a victory for the appetite. Always strive higher, to higher and higher circles of people, until you join the circle that is the choir of the angels. As for us, we will wait there: we join on the wings of the owl of Minerva the company of Sumer, Babylon, India, China, and Egypt, the aged and the wise. Never despair and never tire. Always remember the teaching of renaissance, of reinvention, that we have bestowed: you always have the power to reinvent yourselves when dust collects on your old brows. It is only over when you are conquered into dust, which can only happen if you give up and forsake yourselves.”
Robert was shaken again by the present, which flooded back to him and splashed him awake. His phone was buzzing still, with so many messages missed. Yet he was filled to the core with an obsidian block of resistance against the petty chatter of the day. He had gazed into the dark night of the centuries which flittered like winged horses galloping through the dark. He had matured, grown old, profound. The sirens lessened into a barely-audible hum, until they faded into a background of irrelevancy. All he heard was that dry Venetian violin, combined with a heavy oboe and keyboard, carving out an impassioned and reasoned course through the city streets before him, keeping his back up-right and his goal firm, perpetually renewing him with purity while he was forced to face the masses. Matthew Mayford had died. The news cycle raged on in the black and neon Manhattan night. But Robert was alone with himself, renewed and healthy, like a Roman above a sea of smog.