I had an art book, growing up, that featured a full-page reproduction of a Pieta by an artist whose name I can’t remember on one page with a text-only page beside it. Turn the page, there were two pages of the sketches and cartoons that had preceded the finished piece each smaller and with its own paragraph of text arranged chronologically. Turn the page again and the two final drafts were reproduced almost as large as the final rendition on the first page.
I used to love flipping between the pages, watching sections evolve or be eliminated; roughly defined areas mutate and coalesce. The first sketches were red chalk, harsh delineations, here the Madonna’s face will be, here the Christ, here negative space. The faces had no features, the background was unoccupied, but what fascinated me were the subtle shifts from cartoon to sketch of what was face and what was not. A portion of the canvas once held the eye of Christ and now only a fold of robe, the shifting borders of what was and was not. Those boundaries are so critical, for a face must start somewhere, but so arbitrary, master’s evolving balance, composition, line so elusive through their progression.
A child writes binary equations to understand the world, stark delineations of “If” and “Then”.
If I cry, Mommy will come.
If I drop this, it will fall.
If I bite down while nursing, eating is interrupted.
I watch my son forming these equations, these cartoons of the way the world will work. It allows him to accurately predict events, to trust gravity and me, to function in the world. He will refine and shift his outlines as he grows.
If I say please, Mommy will get me water.
If I squeeze Kitty, he will bite.
If I hit Jimmy, I’ll have to leave the game.
Those boundaries are so critical, for manners and morality must start somewhere, but so arbitrary, a child’s evolving personality, behavior and character so elusive through his development.
When I was twelve I decided I wanted to be a professional ballerina. One of the equations I inherited in that pursuit was: “If you want to dance, you must be very thin.” Or “you can’t be healthy and dance.” I quit dancing, reclaimed a healthy attitude towards food and grieved Dance. It was not until I was almost 30 that I realized that the basic line was wrong and redrew it. I can be healthy and dance. Not dance professionally and not ballet, but I dance now several times a week and it gives me tremendous pleasure.
I want to flip back pages and see the complete cartoon, understand the other rough-drawn lines that divide the space into good and bad, face and backdrop. I suspect mistakes in perspective and scale mar the beauty and the balance, though they are covered now with intricate detail and well-blended pigment. They are hard to see, bad binary that shows up only in occasional odd glitches not troublesome enough to track down in all those strings of code.
Girls aren’t good at math.
Pride cometh before destruction.
Because I can no longer see the sketch, I study the painting and everywhere I see an unblended line I question it. I’m uncomfortable around absolutes, around any if/then description of reality. If I grow too leery of stark lines will I blend and smudge until there is no face left anymore and only an ugly uniform grey? I’m studying the edges again, watching the shifting outline, here is His eye, here is Her robe, but here, here in the shadow between his face and her body, can you tell where one begins and the other ends? Does it matter?
The new physics (if I understand it) teaches us that the demarcation between Me and Not Me is less absolute, more permeable than I’d thought, that on the atomic level it’s not always clear where flesh ends and air begins, there is some interplay between my molecules and those that are not mine, that Mandelbrot’s coast- the barrier of ocean and Englad- is infinite. I enjoy this idea. Nothing is stationary, everything is connected to everything else, thought to reality, intention to creation in an infinite bead necklace, one red bead twenty beads along the chain from another red bead, but roll the necklace in my hand, and they touch, occupy briefly, proximate space. They are related by a connection twenty beads long, and they are side by side. They are also both red. So you sketch the lines you need to create cause and effect, mother and child, good and evil, and you never cease refining the places where one thing dissolves into another, and anyway, it’s only a painting, not the Savior Himself.
I don’t find good and evil to be useful anymore. It’s difficult to define them without reverting to the traditional “what is pleasing or displeasing to God” definition and I don’t know what (if anything) pleases God. People who pilot planes into buildings stake their souls on knowing what pleases God, and there are no external criteria to prove them wrong. To say that what is moral without reference to God though demands another measure for judgment.
Balance, equilibrium, is an illusion. Balance hangs on a thread at the apex of a circle whose diameter is variant depending on the grace of the system. Balance hangs for a moment before the natural force of decay, that which tends toward entropy and chaos sets in. Decay is not evil. It is simply decay. It is easy to think of this force as Evil. But it’s not. Without the impulse towards entropy there would be no growth, no evolution. We would be crystalline. Decay is, however, painful. Decay hurts and chaos hurts more. Our very being is ordered energy so the impulse towards entropy is the tug of self-destruction, and it triggers fear. It’s the guidance system within us that, unless badly corrupted, points us towards growth, towards increasing order, towards pleasure and joy and away from torment and pain. Calibrating that guidance system to be increasingly fine-tuned is the smudge at face and fold, a blending of paints from clearly cheek to decidedly fabric, that is too fluid to follow, too complete to find even a trace of chalk.