Read Museums and Women Online

Authors: John Updike

Museums and Women (2 page)

“A stoic.”

“Maybe I’m a masochist.”


She said nothing. Had I said something curious?

I lit a cigarette, though inhaling the raw air rasped my throat, and asked her, “Aren’t you in Medieval Art? You sit near the front.”

“Yes. Do you sit in the back?”

“I feel I should. I’m a history major.”

“This is your first fine-arts course?”

“Yeah. It met at a good hour—late enough for a late breakfast and early enough for an early lunch. I’m trying to have a sophomore slump.”

“Are you succeeding?”

“Not really. When the chips are down, I tend to grind.”

“How do you like Medieval Art?”

“I love it. It’s like going to a movie in the morning, which is my idea of sin.”

“You have funny ideas.”

“No. They’re very conventional. It would never occur to me, for example, to stand outside in the snow in bare feet.”

“They’re not really bare.”

Nevertheless, I yearned to touch them, to comfort them. There was in this girl, this pale creature of the college museum, a withdrawing that drew me forward. I felt in her an innocent sad blankness where I must stamp my name. I pursued her through the museum. It was, as museums go, rather intimate, built around a skylight-roofed replica of a sixteenth-century Italian courtyard. At the four corners of the flagstone courtyard floor, four great gray terra-cotta statues of the seasons stood. Bigger than life, they were French, and reduced the four epic passages of the year to four charming aristocrats, two male and two female, who had chosen to attend a costume ball amusingly attired in grapes and ribbons. Spring wore a floppy hat and carried a basket of rigid flowers. The stairways and galleries that enabled the museum to communicate with itself around the courtyard were distinctly medieval in feeling, and the vagaries of benefaction had left the museum’s medieval and Oriental collections disproportionately strong, though a worthy attempt had been made to piece together the history of art since the Renaissance with a painting or at least a drawing by each master. But the rooms that contained these later works—including some Cézannes and Monets that, because they were rarely reproduced in art books, had the secret sweetness of flowers in a forest—were
off the route of the course we were both taking. My courtship primarily led down stone corridors, past Romanesque capitals, through low archways giving on gilded altar panels.

I remember stalking her around a capital from Avignon; it illustrated Samson and his deeds. On one side he was bearing off the gates of Gaza, while around the corner his massive head was lying aswoon in Delilah’s lap as she clumsily sawed his hair. The class had been assigned a paper on this capital, and as I rehearsed my interpretation, elaborately linear and accompanied by many agitated indications of my hands, the girl said thoughtfully, “You see awfully much in it, don’t you?”

My hands froze and crept back, embarrassed; the terminology of fine-arts analysis was new to me, and in fact I did doubt that an illiterate carver of semi-barbaric Europe could have been as aesthetically ingenious as I was being. “What do
see in it?” I asked in self-defense.

“Not very much,” she said. “I wonder why they assigned it. It’s not that lovely. I think the Cluny ones are much nicer.”

It thrilled me to hear her speak with such careless authority. She was a fine-arts major, and there was a sense in which she contained the museum, had mastered all the priceless and timeless things that would become, in my possessing her, mine as well. She had first appeared to me as someone guarding the gates.

Once I accompanied her into Boston, to the great museum there, to study, in connection with another course she was taking, an ancient Attic sphinx. This she liked, though it was just a headless winged body of white marble, very simple, sitting stiffly on its haunches, its broad breast glowing under the nicks of stylized feathers. She showed me the S-curve of its body, repeated in the tail and again, presumably, in the vanished head.

“It’s a very
little statue, isn’t it?” I ventured, seeking to join her in her careless little heaven of appreciation. Again, I seemed to have said something curious, slightly “off.”

“I love it” was all she replied, with a dent of stubbornness in her mouth and an inviting blankness in her eyes.

Outside, the weather was winter; the trees were medieval presences arching gray through gray. We walked and walked, and for a time the only shelter we shared was the museum. My courtship progressed; we talked solemnly; the childhood I had spent in such timid silence and foreboding had left me with much to say. She could listen; she was like a room of porcelain vases: you enter and find your sense of yourself abruptly clarified by a cool, shapely expectancy in the air. I see her sitting on the broad cold balustrade that at second-story height ran around the courtyard. Beyond her head, the flagstones shone as if wet, and Printemps in her wide hat was steeply foreshortened. An apprehension of height seized me; this girl seemed poised on the edge of a fall. I heard the volume of emptiness calling to her, calling her away from me, so full of talk. There was in her something mute and remote which spoke only once, when, after our lying side by side an entire evening, she told me calmly, “You know I don’t love you yet.”

I took this as a challenge, though it may have been meant as a release. I carried the chase through exams (we both got A-minuses) and into another course, a spring-term course called, simply, Prints. My mother, surprisingly, wrote warning me that I mustn’t spread myself too thin—she thought now that that had been
mistake at college. I was offended, for I thought that without my telling her anything she would know I was in the process of capturing the very gatekeeper of the temple of learning that must be the radiant place she had pointed me toward so long ago. Yet she was withholding her blessing.

•  •  •

Here I must quickly insert, like a thin keystone, an imaginary woman I found in a faraway museum. It was another university museum, ancient and sprawling and resolutely masculine, full of battered weapons of war and unearthed agricultural tools and dull maps of diggings. All its contents seemed to need a dusting and a tasteful rearrangement by a female hand. But upstairs, in an out-of-the-way chamber, under a case of brilliantly polished glass, I one day discovered a smooth statuette of a nude asleep on a mattress. She was a dainty white dream, an eighteenth-century fancy; only that epicurean century would have so carefully rendered a mattress in marble. Not that every stitch and seam was given the dignity of stone; but the corners were rounded, the buttoned squares of plumpness shown, and the creases of “give” lovingly sculpted. In short, it was clear that the woman was comfortable, and not posed on an arbitrary slab, or slaughtered on an altar. She was asleep, not dead; the warm aroma of her slumber seemed to rise through the glass. She was the size of the small straining figures that had fascinated my childhood, and, as with them, smallness intensified sensual content. As I stood gazing into the eternal privacy of her sleep—her one hand resting palm up beside her averted head, one knee lifted in a light suggestion of restlessness—I was disturbed by dread and a premonition of loss. Why? My wife was also fair, and finely formed, and mute. Perhaps it was the mattress that brought this ideal other woman so close; it was a raft on which she had floated out of the inaccessible past and which had cast her, small and intangible as a thought, ashore on the island of my bounded present. We seemed about to release each other from twin enchantments. Was not my huge face the oppressive dream that was making her stir? And was not I, out of all the thousands who had visited this museum, the first to find
her here? What we seek in museums is the opposite of what we seek in churches—the consoling sense of previous visitation. In museums, rather, we seek the unvisited, the never-before-discovered.

Two more, two more of each, each nameless. None have names. Museums are in the end nameless and continuous; we turn a corner in the Louvre and meet the head of a sphinx whose body is displayed in Boston. So, too, the women were broken arcs of one curve.

She was the friend of a friend, and she and I, having had lunch with the mutual friend, bade him goodbye and, both being loose in New York for the afternoon, went to a museum together. It was a new one, recently completed after the plan of a recently dead American wizard. It was shaped like a truncated top and its floor was a continuous spiral around an overweening core of empty vertical space. From the leaning, shining walls immense rectangles of torn and spattered canvas projected on thin arms of bent pipe. Menacing magnifications of textural accidents, they needed to be viewed at a distance greater than the architecture afforded. The floor width was limited by a rather slender and low concrete guard wall that more invited than discouraged a plunge into the cathedralic depths below. Too reverent to scoff and too dizzy to judge, my unexpected companion and I dutifully unwound our way down the exitless ramp, locked in a wizard’s spell. Suddenly, as she lurched backward from one especially explosive painting, her high heels were tricked by the slope, and she fell against me and squeezed my arm. Ferocious gumbos splashed on one side of us; the siren chasm called on the other. She righted herself but did not let go of my arm. Pointing my eyes ahead, inhaling the presence of perfume, feeling like a cliff-climber whose companion has panicked on the sheerest
part of the face, I accommodated my arm to her grip, and, thus secured, we carefully descended the remainder of the museum. Not until our feet attained the safety of street level were we released. Our bodies then separated and did not touch again. Yet the spell was imperfectly broken, like the door of a chamber which, once unsealed, can never be closed quite tight.

Not far down the same avenue there is a museum which was once a mansion and still retains a homelike quality, if one can imagine people rich enough in self-esteem to inhabit walls so overripe with masterpieces, to dine from tureens by Cellini, and afterward to seat their bodies complacently on furniture invested with the blood of empires. There once were people so self-confident, and on the day of my visit I was one of them, for the woman I was with and I were perfectly in love. We had come from lovemaking, and were to return to it, and the museum, visited between the evaporation and the recondensation of desire, was like a bridge whose either end is dissolved in mist—its suspension miraculous, its purpose remembered only by the murmuring stream running in the invisible ravine below. Homeless, we had found a home worthy of us. We seemed hosts; surely we had walked these Persian rugs before, appraised this amphora with an eye to its purchase, debated the position of this marble-topped table whose veins foamed like gently surfing
aqua marina
. The woman’s sensibility was more an interior decorator’s than an art student’s, and through her I felt furnishings unfold into a world of gilded scrolls, rubbed stuffs, lacquered surfaces, painstakingly inlaid veneers, varnished cadenzas of line and curve lovingly carved by men whose hands were haunted by the memory of women. Rustling beside me, her body, which I had seen asleep on a mattress, seemed to wear clothes as a needless luxuriance, an ultra-extravagance heaped upon what
was already, like the museum, both priceless and free. Room after room we entered and owned. A lingering look, a shared smile was enough to secure our claim. Once she said, of a chest whose panels were painted with pubescent cherubs after Boucher, that she didn’t find it terribly “attractive.” The one word, pronounced with a worried twist of her eyebrows, delighted me like the first polysyllable pronounced by an infant daughter. In this museum I was more the guide; it was I who could name the modes and deliver the appreciations. Her muteness was not a reserve but an expectancy; she and the museum were perfectly open and mutually transparent. As we passed a dark-red tapestry, her bare-shouldered summer dress, of a similar red, blended with it, isolating her head and shoulders like a bust. The stuffs of every laden room conspired to flatter her, to elicit with tinted reflective shadows the shy structure of her face, to accent with sumptuous textures her matte skin. My knowledge of how she looked asleep gave a tender nap to the alert surface of her wakefulness now. My woman, fully searched, and my museum, fully possessed; for this translucent interval—like the instant of translucence that shows in a wave between its peaking and its curling under—I had come to a limit. From this beautiful boundary I could imagine no retreat.

The last time I saw this woman was in another museum, where she had taken a job. I found her in a small room lined with pale books and journals, and her face as it looked up in surprise was also pale. She took me into the corridors and showed me the furniture it was her job to catalogue. When we had reached the last room of her special province, and her cheerful, rather matter-of-fact lecture had ended, she asked me, “Why have you come? To upset me?”

“I don’t mean to upset you. I wanted to see if you’re all right.”

“I’m all right. Please, William. If anything’s left of what you felt for me, let me alone. Don’t come teasing me.”

“I’m sorry. It doesn’t feel like teasing to me.”

Her chin reddened and the rims of her eyes went pink as tears seized her eyes. Our bodies ached to comfort each other, but at any moment someone—a professor, a nun—might wander into the room. “You know,” she said, “we really had it.” A sob bowed her head and rebounded from the polished surfaces around us.

“I know. I know we did.”

She looked up at me, the anger of her eyes blurred. “Then why—?”

I shrugged. “Cowardice. A sense of duty. I don’t know. I can’t do it to her. Not yet.”

“Not yet,” she said. “That’s your little song, isn’t it? That’s the little song you’ve been singing me all along.”

“Would you rather the song had been ‘Not ever’? That would have been no song at all.”

With two careful swipes of her fingers, as if she were sculpting her own face, she wiped the tears from below her eyes. “It’s my fault. It’s my fault for falling in love with you. In a funny way, it was unfair to you.”

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