Sunday, February 20, 2011

What's Wrong With Us?


When I was little I read that the Archduke Francis Ferdinand was a very vain man. He liked his uniforms to lie flat on his body, with sharp, smart creases. And sometimes, to look this neat, he’d actually have himself stitched into his clothes. They’d have to pull all the stitches out before he could get undressed. It was quite a process. Because of this, when he was shot in Sarajevo in 1914 the surgeons couldn’t tear open his clothes quickly enough to reach the wounds. He bled to death under that nice, neat shirt. And the 10 million people killed in World War I… they died partly because of the Archduke’s unfortunate sense of fashion.

In seventh grade I was in love with this girl named Jessica. I wrote her a note in lunch and passed it to someone who opened it instead of giving it to her. They told all their friends, and within twenty minutes everyone was making fun of Jessica and me. They were making fun of Jessica more, because it was much more embarrassing for her to be connected to me than for me to be connected to her. Even now that’s slightly hard to say.
But when we got back to class, Jessica, pissed as I’ve ever seen her, threw the note at me, and said “You’re crazy if you think for one minute that I would ever go out with you.” She said it loud enough for everyone to hear and did it dramatically enough for everyone to see. It was almost a ritualistic act. She was showing everyone who knew us that they shouldn’t connect the two of us together, and that if there were any embarrassment to come from this, it should come to me. Everyone laughed.

I did the only thing I could do. I closed my eyes, put my head on my desk, and acted like I was asleep. I closed my eyes and made the world go away. They were all looking at me, and I was just trying not to see them looking at me. Sometimes that’s all I have. Sometimes it isn’t enough.
On the wall of the Sistine Chapel, Michelangelo painted Christ coming down from the heavens to judge the living and the dead. And around him are all the angels, prophets, and martyrs of the church. One of the martyrs is St. Bartholomew – flayed alive for his faith. But in this painting, he has been completely healed. He stands next to Christ, holding the skin they cut off from him – a deflated human being, hanging like a towel from his hand. The face painted on the skin is not Bartholomew’s, however. You can tell that Bartholomew’s new face and the old deflated face are from two different people. Michelangelo painted his own face onto Bartholomew’s deflated skin as a way of… what? Signing his work? Showing how proud he was of this scene? Showing remorse at his sinful nature?
We look at it and it becomes different things to us. It’s always been that way. We live by looking. We live to be looked at. A cat puffs itself up. A male bird spreads its brightly colored feathers. Insects have the patterns of their movement to share information, show status and position. Two businesspeople will shake hands to show they have no weapons. I will wear a jacket and trousers cut from matching cloth to show that you can trust me with your money, your credit card number, or your personal information.

And sometimes – a lot of the time – the things that you can show people don’t fit with how you want to be seen. How you feel you should be seen. Sometimes – a lot of the time – you just don’t know how people see you. They look at you, and they don’t show anything. And in that moment, you’re not sure yourself.

Who do I look like? Am I coming down from the sky showing my wounds to the world? Am I the face drawn in the margins that could mean any one of a number of contradictory things? Or am I the man in uniform, well-pressed and presentable, except for the neat couple of holes… holding everything I have together while everyone around looks for a way to open me up and see what’s the matter. Holding everything together as well as I can, growing a little lightheaded with the effort. Before lying back because I can do no more…
Closing my eyes finally and letting the lights go out all over the world?

1 comment:

  1. A very fine, majestic piece of writing! Wonderful!

    ReplyDelete

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