Some Terrible Paintings

For my birthday, C. gave me the most magnificent gift: a small framed reproduction of my favorite painting, Caravaggio's Saint Jerome in His Study, from 1605. Jerome was often depicted in the desert wilderness, forsaking worldly distraction in exchange for salvation. But in Caravaggio's hands, he is hushed and desiccated as he completes the first translation of the Bible into Latin. He stares deep into its pages, hunting for revelation, ignoring the skull on his desk, a memento mori that mocks the vanity of our knowledge in the face of the unknowable. The darkness that envelopes him is heavier, more textured than the red cloth he wears, yet he is determined to write one last word before the night consumes him. John Berger has said Caravaggio's darkness "smells of candles, over-ripe melons, damp washing to be hung out the next day." To me, it feels like the purple-black thoughts that burble within the midnight brain. And in this darkness, Jerome no longer belongs to history or dogma but the silence he sought while crisscrossing the desert in the prime of his life.

It's been a quiet month in Ohio with snow and grey skies. I'm pushing myself to wrap up this book I've been dragging around for years. And there's a faint light on the horizon: an ending is announcing itself as the path narrows, doors close, and the story develops its own logic and needs. Meanwhile, C. tells me that I spend a lot of time sighing.

Here's how writing is going: Yesterday, I was revising a scene that briefly mentions a motorhome. Better to be specific, I thought. Give it a make and model. But the classic aluminum Airstream seemed too trendy, and a Winnebago felt lazy. An hour later, I was drowning in recreational vehicle discourse—the Newmar Dutch Star, the New Horizons Summit—and soon I was cultivating elaborate fantasies about living on the road. Then I half-remembered Carl Sagan’s ode to the nomadic impulse, how it is hard-wired and Darwinian: "For all its material advantages, the sedentary life has left us edgy, unfulfilled. Even after 400 generations in villages and cities, we haven't forgotten. The open road still softly calls, like a nearly forgotten song of childhood." Yes, that was how to live. Get rid of the clutter and hit the road, maybe in a Fleetwood Discovery or a Thor Motor Coach Sprinter. I studied articles about easy financing. I began rehearsing a conversation to convince C. that we should chuck it all and start over. Then I looked at the clock and realized two hours had vanished. I turned off the internet, returned to my manuscript, and wrote: An abandoned motorhome sat in a pool of light. So that's how writing is going.

One thing I hate about my writing is that it often feels bunchy and tight. I want to loosen up and recover a sense of play, so I've decided to find a hobby. An activity I can do just for the hell of it, something that doesn't require a staring contest with a screen. So I bought a sketchbook and some watercolor paints because I have no illusions about being a painter. I haven't drawn anything in years; the last time I painted was twenty-five years ago when I was very high. But what to paint? I opened a random page from Flaubert’s The Temptation of Saint Anthony and decided to paint the first phrase that caught my attention. This process has become my new hobby. Here are my first attempts:

Looking at these paintings, it's hard to believe I've been sober for eight years. But it feels good to do something for its own sake, results be damned. And I have a newfound respect for Caravaggio.

Maybe it’s sad that my first impulse when considering a fun activity was to get away from the screen. But the screen feels increasingly heavy, magnetized. In the class I teach, we spend a lot of time discussing the mental effects of attention hijacking, outrage mechanics, etc. Everyone has a lot to say, and the vocabulary is vivid, even violent: onslaught, bombarded, drowning, shredded, etc. More and more, these conversations leave me wondering if it's possible to experience anything along the lines of a "technological sublime," a quality of delight or awe. Or if I can recover my own sense of lightness or play when I’m online.

Despite my best attempts at information hygiene, I’m still buffeted by the digital winds. The other day I caught myself reading an article called "What Yogurt Does to You." Then I lingered over the ambient horror of a New York Times article about mushrooms that referred to "our ruined global moment." Today I received an unsolicited email from a person whose job title is "Editor of Wisdom Content." And so on.

So back to weird painting. Tonight's sentence: "They pelt each other with shells, devour grapes, strangle a goat, and tear Bacchus asunder."

  • Midnight writing music: Roy Montgomery's Island of Lost Souls, which I immediately purchased after reading Boomkat’s description of it as a blend of Slowdive and Vangelis. And it is.

  • I'm also rediscovering the pleasures of Shogun Kunitoki, the Finnish quartet that soundtracked a fair chunk of my life in Helsinki twelve years ago. Built from organs, vintage synthesizers, and live percussion, this is the sound of the future crashing into a wood-paneled rec room circa 1973. Their declared mission was to help electronic music "regress back to a more human state, the time of the tube organ and the ring modulator, the spring reverb, and the test oscillator." And their music is very human: it's the stuff of dreams and occasional nightmares.

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