The Shape Of The Heart
Due for publication in 2015,
Prashker's third collection of short stories will include this tale of a man and his lifelong wrestling-match with the Muse:
There is the man, who writes these lines; and then there is the other, the one who is nameless, the one in whose name I write.
I speak first of a golden sunset that burst through the windows of a library where a sixteen-year-old boy was sitting, half-heartedly turning the pages of a text he had been given for private study. Boredom, and the stark austerity of the library, had turned his face from the page to the glass, where he caught the silhouette of his own reflection, and saw beyond it, etched on a panel of clouds, a sunset of the most staggering and exquisite beauty.
This, as far as I am aware, was the first time that the other appeared to me, black as a shadow of death, yet fixed in the sunlight like a flame. Though he was invisible, I could feel his cold gaze pierce me, his hand upon my shoulder, his mouth breathing close to my mouth; could feel too his apprehension as he approached me, the slight fluctuation of his breath, the feint trembling of his body as he made ready to be born in me. Or was that merely my own apprehension, my own timidity? I felt as Jacob must have felt, encountering the ladder for the first time - and I shivered.
And something swelled up inside me as I tried to catch hold of the image that my eyes seemed fleetingly to have glimpsed. I gripped a pencil above a sheet of paper and drew the face a dozen times, and over the subsequent days a dozen more - but the faces were the faces of my schoolfriends, my teachers, my family. The other had appeared to me, his breath had touched me, his image had entered my consciousness; but he was not, it seemed, yet ready to submit to incarnation in the flesh. And I was not yet ready to give him that incarnation.
My family had intended that I should go to work for my uncle, minding his accounts for him, learning the business I would one day inherit; but my life was no longer my own, for another destiny altogether had now been mapped out for me. A vision had taken possession of me, and I had become desperate to capture it, to know for certain what it seemed to be - at once real and chimera, daemon and Muse, beauty and ugliness, the power to destroy and the desperate yearning to create. Day and night I pursued him in my drawings, yet never could I capture once and for all his elusive darkness, his invisible presence. And part of me did not want to see his face, for I was frightened by it, even while it so compelled me. And sometimes I would be startled when, off my guard for just a moment, I would sense his gaze on me, calling me back to my labours.
Many times I seemed to see his face, beneath the mask of a woman’s face, or in my dreams and nightmares, or in the mosaics of the synagogue I still visited on Saturdays - but the vision would last no more than a moment, and still I could not fix it in my drawings. Then, when my schooldays at last ended, I packed up my few belongings and took to the roads, believing that, in order to find something, one has to search for it outside oneself; and I set off in pursuit of the phantom, unaware that he was behind me all the time, likewise pursuing me.
In the mountains of Bavaria I saw the other tumbling earthwards in an avalanche, and I painted the avalanche, but could not fix his image in the snow.
In the battle for Tiberias I killed a man whose face, in death, wore the same coldness as the other’s breath, and for two years I painted that scene in order to sweep it from my mind.
In Haifa I met a woman whose eyes, in certain lights, resembled his, and I stayed with her for ten full years, and painted her in every light, but could not find the one that held his image.
In Jerusalem I sensed the shadow of his presence, and painted it in a Samson, a Joshua, a David, and his shadow hung heavy over every brushstroke, until finally I knew I had been deceived.
That image of the other scarred my heart and body, ate up my life. Time after time I felt him breathing, sensed his icy gaze upon me, burning me. I was unable to rid him from my thoughts, but still unable to conceive his image in my mind.
And then I came upon a block of marble purer even than that which gave Michelangelo his Moses. Its crystals were soft yet firm against the hammer, translucent against the light of dawn, its grain compact and free of blemishes - and in its centre, gleaming out of the white transparency, the face of the other, as full and clear as my own face in the mirror. Now, sitting before it in my workshop, feeling the pressure of my knees against it, I knew I had tracked him down at last. I began to tear into the marble, like a starving child tearing into raw meat, hacking away the gristle, searching for the figure that lay embedded in the rock.
For months I felt myself to be possessed of superhuman energy. Somehow the other had been imprisoned in the marble, was calling out to me to set him free, was giving himself up to me if only I would keep my hammer strong and steady and my hand precise. I hardly slept, ate only if my friends and neighbours brought me food, gave myself up entirely to the task.
Until it was done, and once more I saw the other had deceived me, for the face I had carved was my own face, the body my own body, a statue, as it seemed, of heroism in despair, of triumph in desolation, of failure rendered immaculate. This work, I knew, was the zenith of my art, the culmination of my years of struggle - and yet, simultaneously, it was also the nadir of my disillusion.
Over the years that followed there were many such encounters, and many were the works that I created in his name, and great was the celebrity that those works brought me. Yet all the while I knew that he cared as little about my works as I did, that the works were incidental, mere tokens, talismans, the accounts of minor battles in our greater struggle, the forms in which each of us could be made manifest for a moment - but only for a moment. Completed, the work froze that moment in our struggle; but the struggle itself went on, as each of us continued to pursue that final, perfect, yet unobtainable form: the full image of the other.
For it was unobtainable, that much I now understood. A work of Art may be eternal, a painter may be immortalised, but the act of painting is entirely transitory, and that which is transitory cannot by definition be made perfect. In seeking to describe him I could only reveal him - as the Name is said to reveal God - confronting him through the mask, allowing him to confront the material world through the mythological one. Only this - not the works themselves. I might experiment with form, breaking with or adhering to convention, but to him I was simply delineating matter, substantiating it, giving him the chance to put on flesh. Even the techniques I used, even the subjects I chose, were of no consequence. His aim was not Art, but incarnation; not style, but revelation; not self-expression but unity with the living-dying world. He existed in those very moments when my brush touched the canvas, when my hammer struck the stone. Then, and only then. When I ceased, when I finished or abandoned a work, the other retreated once more into the darkness of the living light.
Nor, I realised, had he any respect for me - or only the same respect that I had for my brush, my chisel. I was a tool, not a living creature; scarcely autonomous and by no means independent. If he dragged me into the very jaws of death, if he showed me the very face of horror, it was only because the works I created in response to such experiences gave him the chance of momentary being. Had I died, had I lost my sanity, it would not have mattered to him in the least - artists, like soldiers, are expendable because replaceable. Only that I should add my few fragments to his eternal work. Only that in my moments of creating he should be granted an existence.
Yet I was content with this, for in each moment of creating I drew closer to him, and I too existed. It mattered not at all that he cared nothing for me except to be able to use me, that if I had attempted to reject him he could easily have found another. My doubts, my labours, my pursuit of a fashionable style, my egotism - I knew that he was contemptuous of such shallow human vanities. Gradually I was coming to understand his disdain of me, his disdain, indeed, of Art itself, so inadequate to his purposes though it was all he had. My promiscuity, my bad habits, my neurotic excesses, my bouts of stubborn laziness - faults at which he laughed derisorily. And I laughed back. Because I also knew that he needed men to give him life, and that in my weaknesses I was like all men. Let him laugh at me then for being mortal while he was gloriously myth, for being a mere painter while he was painting itself! His weakness lay in needing men - in needing men like me. He too was condemned endlessly to pursuing an unattainable image of the other.
Though we were master and slave, we fought on those terms as equals. We had come at last to love and to despise each other, yet we were bound together, I pursuing him, he pursuing me. I tried to abandon Art - but his grip on me was far too secure. He tried to desert me - but my longing to capture his image was far too desperate. Each of us needed the other to complete his life; neither of us could abandon the other. I had reached the age of sixty, and I had come to know his invisible presence utterly, to understand his fallibility, to feel for him a profound sympathy: a pathos. This too bound us together.
There is the man, who writes these lines; and then there is the other, the one who is nameless, the one in whose name I write. Like a god he takes human forms, like a daemon he possesses human spirits, over and over again. At different times he has been Aeschylus and Shakespeare, Gustav Mahler and Leonardo, Nietzsche and D.H. Lawrence. The works of these men are the image of the other’s genius rendered physical, the infinite number of shapes his being is capable of assuming, the cloak of flesh he dons in order to wander this Earth. I do not dare to ask what pain, what crime, has set him on this hapless course, has condemned him to this timeless, hopeless, fruitless, solitary seeking after flesh, has subjected him to this futile monomania. Yet I, --------, have served him and pursued him, known him and lost him, loved him and resented him, created masterpieces in his name.
Now I am old and unwell, too unwell to write more than these few, brief pages. I sit by the window, watching the last rays of this golden sunset flicker on these pages, watching the dust descend upon the creations of my life. Sometimes, in the late evenings mostly, we find ourselves alone together, the other and I, confronting each other in the darkness like reflections in a mirror, and neither of us is sure exactly what to say.