Respite from The Great Unraveling, written long ago, updated:
A focused pre-med in college, I was mostly disinterested in the arts. I handled the required English and history courses, a philosophy course, but the finer arts held little attraction. For the easy credit, I took a creative art class, made a sort of cubist construction, tower-like, that I was a little proud of. When the prof asked what I liked about it, I said, “It looks like it should tip over, but it doesn’t.” Incisive art critic, I. (Recently, a nearly identical structure, a tilting stack of red boxes, has appeared in downtown Everett. Mine was white.) In med school, I entered a creation into a juried art show, and was accepted. “Like smoke,” they described it. Sold for fifty bucks.
Then I spent a summer involved in medical research in Yugoslavia. Enroute to Belgrade, Rome was my first-ever landing in Europe. As it happened, a family friend, Father Paul Waldschmidt, president of the University of Portland, was there at the same time, and gave me a private tour of the Vatican. Wow.
Though I’ll claim a measure of spirituality, it’s years since I felt religious. To the extent I ever was, it was for having been raised in a Jewish family. After attending religious camp, where I learned more about girls than Torah, I figured on becoming a rabbi, sharing my uniquely brilliant adolescent insights with a grateful world. Whatever soaked in rinsed out by the time I was in college.
And there I stood, in St Peter’s Basilica, all but embraced by Michelangelo’s Pieta.
Of course I’d heard of the artist, the name somewhere in the disused part of my brain where resided random names: Rembrandt, Churchill, Botticelli, Marx, no difference among them. In that moment it all changed. I was awestruck if ever the word meant anything. That such life could have been freed from inanimate stone, hot as a heartbeat, cool as skin, speaking in silence, beyond the moment, was outside my experience and imagination. Till then.
I don’t remember how long I stood there, captivated by an apotheosis of exquisiteness about which I’d never bothered to know. It changed everything. Later, Father Waldschmidt showed me the Sistine Chapel, and, yes, it’s impressive. I’m sure I couldn’t lie on my back that long, and I couldn’t draw a pleasingly curved line if someone put a paintbrush to my head and threatened to pull the trigger. But that marble, become flesh, given breath as surely as it took away my own: that was as different from a painted ceiling as a Northwest sunset is from a cloudless sky.
It wasn’t enough. I bought books, read all I could about Michelangelo (boy, was he abused by the Church!), took the train to Florence just to see his David. If he’d managed only one of his many creations, I thought, it’d have been a full life of artistry. I’d seen Roman statuary, and Greek, and they were impressive testaments to what man will do to win favor from his gods; but they seemed incomplete, air-brushed, anatomically uninformed. David’s hand alone, or Mary’s clothing, any of it spoke more persuasively of perfection than a roomful of the ancients. As did the unfinished giants hunkering nearby David, hoping for Michelangelo’s help as they struggled out of the rock to share the space.
It was like seeing the breadth of the world for the first time, an awakening to what I’d slept through for so many years. It felt as if my own mind opened itself to me, allowing entry into parts of itself I’d never bothered to look for.
Laszlo Toth. The name might mean nothing to you, but I’ll never forget it. Not long after I’d been there, he took a hammer to the Pieta, like attempted murder, who knows why? Now Michelangelo’s restored masterwork sits behind protective glass, the magic undoubtedly filtered, maybe less available, physically and emotionally.
Not for me, though. It remains as fully accessible in my mind as the day I saw it, a moment in which I began to see the larger world, was led in new directions, and, without a doubt, made a better person. A better doctor, too. The memory even makes it easier to recognize and reject the profane venality of Donald Trump. (Sorry. Had to. It’s Saturday.)