Friday, 29 May 2015

Baby Olga

Baby Olga took a gulp of air before letting out another scream. It was a wintry morning and the window was wide open. Cool, crispy air rushed into her lung like that fizzy drink she was fed one afternoon, which was exciting at first but later kept her up all night gagging, insofar as she could’ve been suffocated had it not been her mother, who was thus stirred awake and alarmed enough to call the doctor. Olga coughed a little, and felt her lung expanded and filled with cold breeze. Imagining her mouth as a bottomless hole, she contrived from the depth a primordial, blood-curdling noise. The result was a howl that was instantaneous and possessive of enough volume, akin to that of a newborn lion awakening to the horrifying sense of existence. She continued the screaming and awaited the imminent success, whilst timing in her head about how long before her mother would be alerted and came bustling. 1…2…3...her high register was suddenly caught short, followed by a succession of violent coughs and hiccupping. Having now only a frail, lingering whimper, she pricked up her ears and listened. Her mother was still chatting merrily away, seemingly undistracted by the noisy antic that echoed throughout the house. The attempt was again futile. Baby Olga shut her mouth.

But everything would be fine as her mother would check on her eventually, and they would go to the park, just like yesterday and everyday. Once there she would rush to her favourite spot- the sandpit. She loved frolicking in the sand and digging, both of which her mother disapproved.

“How come I’m saddled with a savage?” Her mother would say, frowning.

Baby Olga would be preoccupied all afternoon digging, fired by the motivation of seeking the legendary Kingdom of Sand, where, as told by grandma, the people lived their lives with eyes shut, a consequence of having too much sand in their eyes, and lay side by side so one would know if his neighbour was still awake by giving the shoulder beside him a gentle shake. After every retelling of the tale Olga would imagine her way down to the Kingdom of Sand, and the people there would welcome her with arms flailing about in the air; a pair of them would eventually catch Olga and she would be joined in, what grandma used to term, “an interminable hibernation.” There was something strangely fascinating about the idea of a long, uninterrupted sleep; like a fairy-tale.

Her happy hour in the sandpit was usually cut short by the intrusion of the “bogeyman,” which came in the form of a stout, spotty-faced, ruddy, gum-chewing boy several years her senior. He would stalk into the park with a proprietary air and make a beeline towards Baby Olga, grunting and huffing like a young bull impatient for its first fight. A rambling speech would ensue about not building “camel’s humps” on his “very own backyard,” the exclusivity of which he insist on adhering to and priding on. To all these impetuous spluttering Olga would feign ignorance and continue her activity; noticing this the bogeyman, seized by a paroxysm of uncontrollable fury, would dismantle the humps with a single kick and give Olga a few heavy smacks on the cheeks. Dismayed, she would wail aloud, turning her dewy eyes to the direction of her mother, who at that point would always be in the midst of a merry conversation with a handsome-looking man- every so often she would gesticulate excitedly and he would touch her flying hands as though by accident.

Olga’s mother rarely regarded little incidents like a minor scuffle between children with any seriousness. Normally she would break up the conflict by pulling Olga forcibly out of the sandpit, console her with a few impatient words like “OK now stop crying you silly, everyone’s watching,” and, just before leaving, direct at the bogeyman a few playful winks, who would respond with a leering smirk and his fingers drawing circles before his chest. Baby Olga was certain the boy would grow up to be a very disgusting man.

Time was ticking away. Baby Olga had grown tired of chewing her pinafore and was wondering if her mother had forgotten about their daily routine. But it may be a good thing if they arrived later than usual, because by then the bogeyman might have already gone away and the sandpit would be solely hers. Just think about it, hours of digging and playing all on her own without untoward intrusion! Olga giggled with joy until joyful tears filled her eyes. Maybe this would be a fateful sign that she would finally seek out the Kingdom of Sand. Grandma had always told her that she would be the one to visit the mythical underworld before Olga did. Today was the day to prove her wrong.

Her mother came striding into the room and broke the news: “Grandma will be coming in an hour. I have an important appointment tonight. I won’t be staying for dinner.” But what about the park? Baby Olga demanded. No, not today, mommy is busy. But I want to go to the park. Baby Olga began to sound anguished. Enough! When I say no it means no! Then she flounced out.

Baby Olga plunged into a trance where every sensation seemed blunted to a weak, continuous sound of low murmur. She penetrated her gaze into a fixed point in the room but she saw nothing. No park, no sandpit, no quest for the Kingdom of Sand. What was that supposed to mean? She contemplated and her mouth was ajar. She could not close her mouth properly whenever something baffled her. Such look of her was ludicrously funny, her mother once remarked, because she had protruded teeth and when you had protruded teeth it was impossible for you to look fierce. Everyone tended to say, “Oh is it that little bunny again? See how bashful and pitiable she looks” And they would all be roaring in laughter when she tried pulling all sorts of grimaces.

Something was rumbling inside of her. She stuck out her tongue as she felt like retching. Out came an infernal explosion that was once deafening and almost inaudible. She continued in this manner until her throat was sore and she was gasping for breath. Despairingly she closed her eyes, and in the dark every detail of the Kingdom of Sand seemed illuminated: the building, the beds, the reclining people and their waving hands. She felt herself enclosed tightly in an embrace and drawn further and further out of the grasp of her consciousness. A satisfied smile playing about her lips; finally, a foretaste of happiness was savoured.

Wednesday, 6 May 2015

Charles Gleyre, Lost Illusions

Amongst many of his reflective musings, the narrator of Proust’s In Search of Lost Time once meditates on the eternal majesty of the moon. Conceiving of a wane moon in an afternoon sky as an actress who, not wanting to attract notice, dresses in ordinary clothes and mingles with the audience as she watches a play from the wing, the narrator marvels at the ineffaceable beauty of nature that, even in its most obscure and lustreless state, one is hard not to notice its reigning presence, shimmering from afar. He is thus reminded of a landscape painting by Charles Gleyre, in which the figures are silhouetted against a sky illumined by a silver sickle.

A composite of realism in methods and mysticism in themes is what characterises Gleyre’s individual style. Having travelled extensively for some time the countries of eastern Mediterranean, there runs through his paintings a streak of oriental influence that conveys an ennobling quality of numinousness. Lost Illusions (1865-67) depicts a vision Gleyre had once he was reminiscing on the banks of Nile; it seems a wistful leave-taking of life: an aging artist watches as a bark sails away with his youthful illusions. The moon, that symbol of the twilight years of life, leaves the brooding artist intentionally in the gloom, casting its soft, luminous light instead on the imagined figures. This is the sort of painting that implies the opposite of what is presented: the dimming of light and, at length, the encroachment of darkness.

The treatment of light can sometimes determine the focal point of a painting. Renaissance’s introduction of chiaroscuro reverts to the medieval tradition that conceives of light as a fundamental component from which all the essentials of art derived. Colours and lines, amongst many others, cannot take forms if without the infusion of light. The strong contrast between light and dark underlines the three-dimensionality of an object; it is a means through which an artwork is invigorated to life. Victor Hugo once rightfully said that “to love beauty is to seek for light.” Such pursuit of ideal beauty in the Renaissance entails an unwavering devotion to God and His Providence. Regardless of how dreadful the conditions- natural disaster, war, pestilence or the removal of trusty guidance- that luminosity of faith, however vague, never diminishes from the hearts of the devotee. But this is not to suppose that the Renaissance regarded darkness as a wholly sinister force. In their sense of what constituted a harmonious world, all natural objects were of the same consequence, with not a single one taking precedence over the others. The equilibrium of the universe was maintained by a host of conflicting elements.

Sometimes in theatre, the premature departure of a character has on the audience an even more indelible impression than those present can contrive. The role is made a star precisely because of its absence, leaving a colossal void that not even a succession of gripping melodramas can fill. But the audience can still feel his presence hovering, lingering, and lurking like an invisible moon in the sky. Gerard de Nerval once likened a mired nation to a world plunged in smothering darkness- “Perhaps God is dead,” he said. But is God ever dead? For Proust, not even the absence of moon can eclipse its light.