Monday, August 11, 2008

'Not a faith in absolutes'

I picked up Adam Gopnik's children's book, The King in the Window, from the library while looking for a big, immersive chapter book for B. He quickly gravitated to some other stuff from the library pile, so I started reading the Gopnik. That did it: The novel instantly became irresistible, and soon he, L. and I were happily working our way through it. 

Reading the book reminded me of Gopnik's great essay, "The Last of the Metrozoids," in which the art historian and curator Kirk Varnedoe, dying of lung cancer, becomes coach of a somewhat hapless bunch of eight-year-old touch-football wannabes. It's a cute situation, and Gopnik is a cute writer, but he holds himself back, beautifully evoking Varnedoe as a teacher. One scene sticks in my mind: Varnedoe, exacting and calm, tossing a ball to a scared child and methodically teaching him to do one thing right. "When he caught it, Kirk wasn’t too encouraging; when he dropped one he wasn’t too hard. He did not make him think it was easy. He did not make him think that he had done it when he hadn’t. He made him think that he could do it if he chose."

The essay isn't online in reliable form (this cached Google page may work), but it is collected in Gopnik's book Through the Children's Gate. Here's a little more:
I had once said something fatuous to him about enjoying tonight’s sunset, whatever tomorrow would bring, and he had replied that when you know you are dying you cannot simply “live in the moment.” You loved a fine sunset because it slipped so easily into a history, yours and the world’s; part of the pleasure lay in knowing that it was one in a stream of sunsets you had loved, each good, some better, one or two perfect, moving forward in an open series. Once you knew that this one could be the last, it filled you with a sense of dread; what was the point of collecting paintings in a museum you knew was doomed to burn down?

But there were pleasures in life that were meaningful in themselves, that did not depend on their place in an ongoing story, now interrupted. These pleasures were not “aesthetic” thrills—not the hang gliding you had never done or the trip to Maui you had never taken—but things that existed outside the passage of time, things that were beyond comparison, or, rather, beside comparison, off to one side of it. He loved the Metrozoid practices, I came to see, because for him they weren’t really practicing. The game would never come, and the game didn’t matter. What mattered was doing it.
The essay interweaves many threads -- Varnedoe's coaching of the Metrozoids, Gopnik's recollections of befriending his teacher, Varnedoe's last, bravura art history lectures, the 1984 Boston College-Miami game. 

And death, inevitably.
That Sunday, he did something that surprised me. It was the last lecture of the Mellons, and he talked about death. Until then, I had never heard him mention it in public. He had dealt with it by refusing to describe it—from Kirk the ultimate insult. Now, in this last lecture, he turned on the audience and quoted a line from a favorite movie, “Blade Runner,” in which the android leader says, “Time to die,” and at the very end he showed them one of his favorite works, a Richard Serra “Torqued Ellipse,” and he showed them how the work itself, in the physical experiences it offered—inside and outside, safe and precarious, cold and warm—made all the case that needed to be made for the complexity, the emotional urgency, of abstract art. Then he began to talk about his faith. “But what kind of faith?” he asked. “Not a faith in absolutes. Not a religious kind of faith. A faith only in possibility, a faith not that we will know something, finally, but a faith in not knowing, a faith in our ignorance, a faith in our being confounded and dumbfounded, as something fertile with possible meaning and growth."

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